Pro-choice advocates in Alabama can breathe a sigh of relief. A bill which would have banned clinics that offer abortion services from operating within 2,000 feet from public schools did not come up for a vote before the end of the legislation session, effectively killing it in the Senate. Drafted by Huntsville pastor James Henderson, and sponsored and driven through the state's House by Republican Representative Ed Henry, proponents for anti-abortion bill HB 527 argued the bill's purpose was to protect youth from viewing the graphic images used in protest by anti-abortion advocates.
If the bill had passed, it would have effectively closed or moved the Alabama Women's Center — the only abortion clinic in northern Alabama, and the only clinic in Alabama that has gynecologists with local hospital privileges. Currently the Alabama Women's Center is across the street from Edward H. White Middle school, which currently is under renovations and won't have students until fall.
HB 527, which employs the 2,000 foot buffer placed on convicted sex offenders from public schools, had been approved by an Alabama Senate committee on Wednesday, prompting prochoice advocates to fear for the worse. The public hearing for the bill was not attended by Representative Henry, but the bill was spoken for by Senator Paul Sanford (R-Huntsville). To a predominantly empty room, Sanford stressed that the intention of the bill was not to hinder abortion access.
"The bill's not tailored to stop abortions at all, but what its intent is, is to try to minimize the negative impact on these school aged children," said Sanford. "A lot of these children walk to school, back and forth, in the area, and it just doesn't seem appropriate that they would have to witness some of the demonstration — either the people who are for or against abortions."
While Sanford may argue that the intent of the bill is not to stop abortions, he is a known pro-choice advocate. In 2013 Sanford gave $10,000 of public dollars to the pro-life group, Choose Life, of North Alabama.
Opponents of the bill had claimed its impartiality towards abortion was a ruse and Susan Watson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, warned that if the bill became law the ACLU would have sued the state.
The Associated Press reported that pastor James Henderson, former director of the Christian Coalition of Alabama and recent founder of a pro-life PAC, said he is optimistic for the future of pro-life legislation regardless of the outcome of his personal project, HB 527. Anti-abortion advocates are more mobilized than ever believes Henderson, and their numbers will continue to grow.
Elizabeth Nash, a senior state issues associate at the Guttmacher Institute, says not to be fooled by the argument that HB 527 was to protect children.
"This is clearly an attempt to close abortion clinics in Alabama and is part of a longstanding effort by abortion opponents to reduce access to services," Nash tells Bustle. "We've seen over the past several years a number of new abortion restrictions become law and all of it is designed to make abortion difficult to access - if not impossible." Representative Henry did not respond to inquiries by Bustle for a statement.
What The Bill — And Others Like It — Would Have Done To Alabama
Dalton Johnson, owner of the Alabama Women's Center, told The Guardian that he is roughly $1 million in debt due to making the improvements to the Center required by the Alabama Women's Health and Safety Act. If HB 527 is brought again to the Senate in the next session and passes, it's likely that the Center would be unable to relocate. If this happens, Huntsville residents seeking services provided by the Center would have to travel 100 miles to access clinics in Birmingham, Nashville, or Atlanta. Currently the clinic averages around 200 abortions a month — a number swelled by the restrictions on other Alabama clinics.
"When one clinic closes, the remaining clinics often cannot take the additional demand that is being placed on them," says Nash. "When abortion clinics close, certainly women have to travel. When women have to travel these distances, the cost of the abortion increases dramatically."
With travel time and the mandated waiting period enforced in some states — Alabama and Tennessee require a wait period of 48 hours between counseling and abortion — without the Alabama Women's Center, the women of northern Alabama could experience barriers such as a need to request multiple days off work and the need to pay for factors like gas, child care, and housing in the communities of these clinics miles away. If an ulterior motive of the bill was to persuade women against abortion through a forced wait period, it's was a political manuever that trounces their right to choose rather provide more time to think about the decision.
"The waiting period isn't about reflection, it's about delay," says Nash. "We [the Guttmacher Institute] have done research and we have found that over 90 percent of women seeking abortion services have already made up their mind to get the abortion."
The "Buffer Zone" In The Spotlight
While the legislation behind HB 527 may be unique in its call for a buffer between clinics and public schools, communities across the country have been in debate over the subject of free speech in regards to abortion clinic protests in recent years. In 2000 the Supreme Court upheld Colorado's mandated eight foot buffer zone between protestors and those entering a clinic, while in June of 2014 the high court ruled that the 35-foot protest free zone employed in Massachusetts was unconstitutional.
"Free speech and abortion rights have long been in some conflict, particularly near abortion clinics," says First Amendment specialist, Professor Timothy Zick, in an email to Bustle. "With regard to children and exposure to graphic images, the courts are split on the free speech issue. Some have upheld restrictions on the ground that the state has a compelling interest in protecting children from such images, while others have invalidated such restrictions on First Amendment grounds."
Zicks believes that the 2,000-foot buffer proposed in Alabama appears to be more calculated to displace abortion clinics, rather than shield students from disturbing images. While protecting the rights of protestors, the bill would essentially allow for their actions to interfere or burden women's access to the clinic's services.
Shielding any audience from protests that raise uncomfortable issues is inconsistent with First Amendment principles, but it doesn't take away from the fact that the bill would additionally enable abortion opponents to indirectly do what they can't under Supreme Court precedents — ban abortion.
"I think there's a balance. There's a balance of being able to speak your mind, and protect the safety of healthcare providers," says Nash. "If the concern is that teenagers are going to see graphic images, well perhaps the solution should be some sort of limitation on protesters instead of limiting where abortion clinics can be located."
Where Alabama Goes From Here
While the use of displaying graphic images of fetuses has been employed by abortion proponents since the 1980's, and is still a contested practice within antiabortion communities, the effectiveness of the practice on actually convincing women to not receive abortions is not rooted in any convincing data. In a 2013 study by the UCSF Bixby Center for Global Reporductive Health, researchers found that out of 956 women nearly have of them encountered protesters at clinics. Of the women who were seeking abortion, 25 percent reported being "a little" upset at what they encountered and 16 percent were "extremely" upset. Yet, the presence of protesters had no effect on the women's emotional response to their abortion one week after the procedure.
In a similar vein of thinking with protesters who utilize images of fetuses, ten states have enacted laws that require doctors to perform ultrasounds before abortions, while three require that women view the image. However, a 2014 survey of more than 15,000 women found that roughly 99 percent of women continued with their decision to have an abortion after voluntarily viewing the ultrasound image of the fetus.
Reproductive health is considered in terms of three essential aspects: sex education, access to family planning services, and access to abortion. While Alabama has made some investments in planning services, state legislature has made it very hard to have access to abortion services and the state has not invested in comprehensive sex education. The sex education code of Alabama requires that educators emphasize that abstinence from sexual intercourse is the only completely effective protection against unwanted pregnancy and "abstinence from sexual intercourse outside of lawful marriage is the expected social standard for unmarried school-age persons." In a response to an inquiry over sex ed to AL.com, Shannon Stanley, the superintendent of teaching and learning at Jefferson County Schools, stated that her schools "do not address sexual conduct of any nature."
Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2011 Alabama ranked 1 out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia on final teen birth rates among females aging from 15 to 19. In 2013, the teen pregnancy rate of Alabama was 9.3 percent compared to the national average of 7 percent and in 2010, 55 percent of all pregnancies in Alabama were unintended. HB 527 was highly mobilized before it's death at the hands of the Senate's legislative calendar — passing through both House and a Senate committee. Perhaps if Alabama lawmakers are focused on protecting their teenagers, they should focus on providing them with comprehensive sex education courses and increased access to family planning services rather than placing their attention on limiting their access to potentially seeing graphic images.
When I ask Nash if Alabama had some of the most intense advocates against abortion, she laughed.
"I would say that Alabama is a very conservative state that has a long-standing reputation as being hostile to abortion," says Nash. "Overall, the state isn't meeting the reproductive health and human rights needs of it's citizens. They really support abstinence only education, the support for family planning services is quite moderate, and their's is an all out assault on abortion rights."
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