Responsible discussions

A lone federal judge is keeping open the only abortion clinic in Mississippi, thwarting for now Gov. Phil Bryant’s determined drive to make his state the first in the nation where it is impossible for all but the affluent to terminate a pregnancy. What’s happening there, as abortion once again convulses our national politics, is alarming.

Federal courts are the last barricade when the political process conflicts with the lawof the land. In this case, Bryant and legislative leaders have dropped all pretense that a new law targeting the state’s only clinic would protect the health and safety of women. His latest effort, requiring hospital accreditation for clinic doctors, followsamajor defeat for Bryant last year when 58 percent of voters rejected his amendment to the state’s constitution declaring that life begins at conception.

Those who use the clinic, run by the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, are mostly black, and many are unmarried and have low incomes. Between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2011, 2,000 women received abortions at the clinic. Women whocan find and afford one of the few gynecologists inprivate practice who terminate pregnancies—none advertise—can have the procedure done in an office. State law, however, limits private practitioners to 10 abortions a month. Women with themeans can travel elsewhere. The next closest clinic is across state lines in Shreveport, a 200-mile drive and at least an overnight stay, because Louisiana law requires a 24-hour waiting period. The head of the Jackson clinic say that’s an alternative her clients can’t afford.

So far, a pillar of the state’s Republican establishment is keeping the clinic open. U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Jordan III — appointed by President George W. Bush, mentored by former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, once the GOP party chairman of a county outside Jackson — issued a preliminary injunction Friday barring fines or penalties against the clinic as it continues to seek admitting privileges to local hospitals for its two doctors. The clinic’s doctors fly in because it’s too dangerous for them to live in Mississippi.

Jordan’s move is a shrewd one. The hospitals, under tremendous political pressure, have avoided acting on the doctors’ applications for three months. The judge will let the outcome determine whether the law is about health or an unconstitutional barrier to abortion.

In the court proceedings, the governor’s outrageous statements were used as evidence. On a radio program, Bryant once claimed of Democrats, “Their one mission in life is to abort children.”

It’s easy but risky for those on the other side to respond in kind by framing this as a partisan fight, such as the GOP’s “War onWomen.”The recent aggressive effort, in state capitals and in Congress, to further narrow access to abortion has come about as a result of the 2010 elections, which have put more conservative teaparty- affiliated representatives in office. The well organized anti-abortion movement hasmerged forces with them.

Exaggerating society’s fundamental differences for political gain, however, won’t bring about the understanding and compromise that will be needed to keep abortion safe, legal but infrequent. There are Democrats who oppose legal abortion and Republicans who support it. Millions of women have voted for legislators and governors who make anti-abortion campaign promises. Are they voting to declare war on themselves?

This national debate, which began long before Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973 and is unlikely to fade, is one infused with deep religious and moral underpinnings. With Roe, the U.S. Supreme Court established that women have a constitutional right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy. In a 1992 case, the court granted states more leeway to regulate but said none could place an “undue burden” on a woman’s ability to make that decision.

Persuading others to change their views requires a responsible and principled discussion. That’s not what’s happening in Mississippi.

@ Newsday — Long Island, N.Y.

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