In mostly abortion-free Mississippi, court battle continues

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A physicians' group based in the Midwest lacks legal standing to challenge a 25-year-old Mississippi Supreme Court ruling recognizing a right to abortion under the state constitution, lawyers for six women who support abortion rights argued in court papers filed Friday.

“This case was brought by an out-of-state organization that obviously believes the government should force Mississippi women to carry pregnancies to term and give birth against their will,” Mississippi Center for Justice attorney Rob McDuff said Friday, adding that those who filed suit have “no practical stake in this particular case.”

The legal fight could be more about principle than practicality because Mississippi's only abortion clinic shut down in July, weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court upended abortion rights nationwide with a case that originated in the state.

Like some other conservative states, Mississippi had a “trigger” that would ban most abortions once the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling was overturned.

The American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists filed a lawsuit in November in a Mississippi court, saying the state has a potential conflict between the 2007 trigger law and the 1998 ruling, Pro-Choice Mississippi v. Fordice, which held that abortion is a right protected by the the state Constitution.

“Elective abortions in Mississippi appear to be both statutorily illegal and constitutionally protected at the same time,” attorneys from the Mississippi Justice Institute argued in representing the anti-abortion physicians. They said physicians need clarification to avoid possible punishment by medical institutions.

Leaders of the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology, which provides certification to doctors in the field, have said they do not expect doctors to violate their moral beliefs. But the anti-abortion doctors in this case called those assurances insufficient.

The website of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists shows the group is based in Indiana and says it has member physicians in Mississippi and other states.

Mississippi Center for Justice and Democracy Forward Foundation, both of which are legal services groups that support abortion rights, filed Friday to intervene on behalf of the six women and asked a judge to dismiss the case.

Democracy Forward attorney Will Bardwell said in a statement that the lawsuit is “improperly filed” and “politically-driven.”

“Courts are only able to hear cases when there is an actual controversy,” Bardwell said. “This manufactured case holds no water.”

McDuff said the physicians' association "is not injured by the existence of this precedent, and this case does not belong in court.”

Mississippi Justice Institute director Aaron Rice said the case is the final leg of the anti-abortion movement’s legal march toward banning the procedure.

He said Friday that the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists “will continue seeking to protect its members’ rights of conscience by clarifying that Mississippi’s elective abortion ban is constitutional. Regardless of their positions on abortion, all Mississippians should want certainty in the law.”

Mississippi's trigger law says abortion is legal only if the woman’s life is in danger or if a pregnancy is caused by a rape reported to law enforcement. It does not have an exception for incest.

The state's last abortion clinic was Jackson Women's Health Organization. In a last-ditch attempt to remain open, its attorneys asked a state court to block the trigger from taking effect. They cited the Fordice decision, arguing that the state constitution invokes a right to privacy that “includes an implied right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.”

Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch wrote that after the reversal of Roe v. Wade, “to the extent that Fordice recognized a right to abortion, it is no longer good law.”


Associated Press reporter Michael Goldberg contributed to this report.