Attorneys for Jackson Women’s Health Organization announced Tuesday it was dropping its legal efforts to continue to perform abortions in Mississippi.
Rob McDuff, an attorney for the Mississippi Center for Justice who represented the clinic, said the failure of the state Supreme Court to hear the case “on an emergency basis” led to the decision for Jackson Women’s Health Organization to drop the lawsuit and to relocate to another state where abortions are not banned.
The clinic was the last abortion provider in the state.
The clinic had filed an emergency petition with the state Supreme Court asking the justices to prevent from going into effect state laws banning most abortions in Mississippi. The clinic pointed out that in 1998, the state Supreme Court had ruled that abortion was a right protected by the Mississippi Constitution. That ruling, the clinic argued, would supersede the state laws passed in later years to ban abortions.
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But in a statement Tuesday, the Mississippi Center of Justice said that because of the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the abortion clinic appeals in an expedited matter, the lawsuit was being dropped. Diane Derzis, the owner of the clinic, recently sold the building in Jackson’s Fondren neighborhood where the clinic, known as the Pink House, was located. She is continuing with plans to open a clinic in New Mexico.
“In recent years, the Mississippi Center for Justice, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the Paul Weiss law firm have filed several lawsuits to keep the clinic’s doors open, and to preserve and expand access to abortion in Mississippi,” said Vangela Wade, chief executive officer for the Mississippi Center for Justice. “We will continue to work for the day that right is restored and that every Mississippian has the resources to make their own reproductive and family planning decisions.”
With the decision to drop the lawsuit, left unresolved is the 1998 state Supreme Court decision in Pro-Choice Mississippi v. Kirk Fordice that recognized the right to abortion as part of the Mississippi Constitution. After that decision was issued, the state Legislature in 2007 passed a law saying most abortions would be banned in Mississippi if the U.S. Supreme Court ever stripped away the right to an abortion as part of the federal Constitution. And in 2019 the state Legislature passed a ban on all abortions after six weeks except in cases of medical emergencies.
State officials said those laws took effect after the U.S. Supreme Court in late June overturned Roe v. Wade, which granted the right to an abortion, in a case involving Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
But Jackson Women’s Health Organization filed a lawsuit to block those laws from taking effect based on the 1998 state Supreme Court ruling. The lawsuit argued that the Supreme Court ruling, which was based on the Constitution, trumped state law. But Chancellor Debbra Halford of Franklin County rejected the clinic’s arguments. The clinic appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, but on Tuesday decided to drop the appeal.
While that appeal was pending before the Supreme Court, doctors at the clinic stopped performing abortions opting not to risk the punishment doled out in state law – a possible prison sentence and a loss of medical license – even though in the lawsuit they argued they still had the right to perform abortions based on the 1998 state Supreme Court ruling.
Mississippi Today could not get a definitive answer from the Supreme Court on whether it could take up the lawsuit even though it was dropped and reconsider the 1998 ruling granting a constitutional right to an abortion.
Theoretically, a doctor could perform abortions in the state and argue in court he or she had the right based on the 1998 Supreme Court ruling. But the doctor would be risking his or her livelihood based on how the court ruled on the issue of the Constitution versus state law.
In a statement, McDuff said, “Diane’s work is not done, and we applaud her commitment to continuing to ensure people can exercise their right to abortion. As she has stated, she is working to open a clinic in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where she can provide abortion care without fear of being put in prison for 10 years. We thank Diane; the clinic’s executive director, Shannon Brewer; and its medical director, Dr. Carr-Ellis; all of the clinic’s employees; and the Pink House Defenders, for the heroic work they have done so Mississippians could make their own decisions about pregnancy and childbirth.”
Editor’s note: Vangela M. Wade is a member of Mississippi Today’s board of directors.