Doctors at Mississippi's sole abortion clinic are allowed to continue performing the procedure, even if they do not have admitting and staff privileges at an area hospital, as required by state law, a federal judge ruled Friday.
But state officials can begin an administrative process that could ultimately lead to the closing of the clinic, said U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III.
The decision comes in the wake of a law that was to have taken effect July 1 requiring all abortion providers in the state to be certified obstetrician/gynecologists with privileges at local hospitals. But they continued to practice under a temporary restraining order issued by Jordan that blocked the law's enforcement.
"The Act will be allowed to take effect, but Plaintiffs will not be subject to the risk of criminal or civil penalties at this time or in the future for operating without the relevant privileges during the administrative process," he wrote in Friday's 11-page order.
"This will maintain the status quo in this litigation because the Defendants will be precluded from taking action that they do not now contemplate while Plaintiffs will be permitted to operate lawfully while continuing their efforts to obtain privileges as they said they would."
Diane Derzis, the Jackson clinic owner, told CNN she is "delighted" by the decision.
"All along we've been attempting to comply with this legislation, but at this point everything is out of our hands and in the hands of the hospitals."
Their concern over the possibility that they might be criminally or civilly prosecuted has, for the moment, been allayed, she said. "We have to be concerned with what happens afterwards, but right now we are OK," she said.
The clinic doctors have applied for admitting privileges, she added.
"Today's decision has ensured, for the time being, that anti-choice politicians in Mississippi cannot relegate the women of their state to a second class of citizens that can be denied their constitutional rights with the stroke of a legislator's pen," said Nancy Northup, president and CEO at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which filed suit against the state.
"Every woman in the United States must be guaranteed the same rights and protections under the laws of the land, no matter where she happens to live.
"It is truly shameful that after years of vicious legislative attacks on reproductive health care providers in Mississippi, the health and well-being of women in the state hinges on the survival of one remaining clinic.
"The federal judge has provided crucial temporary protection for the clinic and its physicians. We will remain vigilant in our fight to ensure the clinic isn't subject to penalties that would force its doors to close and deprive Mississippi women of their constitutionally-protected rights."
Gov. Phil Bryant, who signed the bill into law, said in a statement that he was "gratified" with the court's decision to allow it to take effect. "Mississippi will continue to defend this important measure as the legal process moves forward," he said.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Sam Mims, a Republican, said he was "pleased" with the ruling. "While Judge Jordan's ruling allows the clinic to remain open for an undetermined time and continue performing abortions while attempting to meet the requirements of the new law, I am confident that the new legislation will result in the improvement of health care for women," he said in a statement.
A lawsuit filed by the clinic to declare the law unconstitutional will proceed.
Two of the three doctors at Jackson Women's Health Organization travel to the clinic from other states; only one of its doctors is authorized to practice at a nearby hospital.
The decision is a victory for both sides -- the law goes into effect, yet the clinic can remain open and doctors will not be immediately punished for continuing to perform abortions while not having admitting privileges -- a process that can take months.
But Beth Burkstrand-Reid, an assistant professor of law at the University of Nebraska and a reproductive health law expert said those who favor keeping the clinic open are likely to face more challenges. "The purpose of the Mississippi law is to close that clinic," she told CNN. "If this law does not work, we will undoubtedly see another creative and likely unconstitutional attempt to close the clinic."
Mississippi has the nation's highest teen birth rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2010, the U.S. birth rate was 34.3 per 1,000 teens; it was 55.0 per 1,000 for Mississippi.