Alabama Abortion Law HB57, Poised To Shutter Most Clinics, Was Just Struck Down

Abortion access in the southern United States remains scant and vulnerable, but reproductive rights activists gained an important victory Monday in Alabama. A U.S. judge ruled unconstitutional an Alabama abortion law that threatened to close most of the state's clinics, declaring it an overreaching burden on women seeking reproductive health care. The law required doctors at every abortion clinic in the state to have admitting privileges at a local hospital — a TRAP law that has become something of a back-door abortion ban in states across the South and Midwest.

In an 172-page opinion, Judge Myron Thompson concluded that the admitting privileges law would place an "undue burden" on women who need abortions, thus violating the decision of Planned Parenthood v. Casey that has become the litmus test for state-level abortion laws:

The evidence compellingly demonstrates that the requirement would have the striking result of closing three of Alabama’s five abortion clinics, clinics which perform only early abortions, long before viability. Indeed, the court is convinced that, if this requirement would not, in the face of all the evidence in the record, constitute an impermissible undue burden, then almost no regulation, short of those imposing an outright prohibition on abortion, would.
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Thompson also addressed Alabama's history of anti-abortion violence, which stems back to the 1993 murder of Dr. David Gunn, who provided abortions in Alabama and the Florida panhandle. Gunn was the first abortion doctor to be killed by a member of the pro-life movement. "This court cannot overlook the backdrop to this case: a history of severe violence against abortion providers in Alabama and the surrounding region," Thompson wrote.

He then outlined a number of other extreme acts of violence against abortion providers that have occurred in the state over the last 20 years, including arson, vandalism, attempted murder and stalking. "Against the backdrop of this history of violence, abortion providers and women seeking abortions in Alabama today live and work in a climate of extreme hostility to the practice of abortion," the judge added.

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Passed in 2013, Alabama's admitting privileges law would have closed three of the state's five abortion clinics, including two Planned Parenthood facilities. These three clinics — located in Birmingham, Mobile and Montgomery — were unable to secure admitting privileges at a local hospital because their doctors come in from out-of-state — a ramification of region's intense anti-abortion climate.

If those three clinics were to shut down, Alabama women would have to travel to either Tuscaloosa or Huntsville for an abortion procedure. Alabama already has many restrictions on abortion, including a 48-hour waiting period, parental consent and state-mandated counseling designed to discourage women from undergoing the procedure.

"These admitting privileges were not designed to make women safer," Sue Watson, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, said in a statement. "We are proud to know that Alabama's women will continue have access to safe and legal abortions."

This court victory comes barely a week after the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Mississippi's admitting privileges law, which would have closed the state's lone abortion clinic, Jackson Women's Health Organization. Justice E. Grady Jolly wrote that without JWHO — which was denied admitting privileges by all Jackson-area hospitals — Mississippi would be directly violating a woman's constitutional right to end a pregnancy. "[The law] effectively extinguishes that right within Mississippi’s borders," the judge concluded.

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