Politics & Government

Alabama law on abortion doctors ruled unconstitutional

Alabama’s requirement that abortion clinic doctors have admitting privileges at local hospitals unconstitutionally burdens women’s rights to the medical procedure, a federal judge ruled Monday.

While the decision is a defeat for abortion opponents who, in recent years, have pressed legislators across the country to enact laws limiting availability and regulating those who perform the procedure, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in Montgomery, Alabama, confined his ruling to the parties in the case before him and declined to immediately issue a sweeping injunction.

“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,” Thompson said. If such a requirement doesn’t constitute “an impermissible undue burden, then almost no regulation, short of those imposing an outright prohibition on abortion, would.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade and subsequent decisions, has declared women have a constitutional right to an abortion before a fetus is capable of surviving outside the womb and that lawmakers can’t unduly burden access to the procedure.

The Alabama measure, signed into law by Republican Gov. Robert Bentley in 2013, would force clinics in three of the state’s biggest cities to close because their doctors, who are from out of state, can’t get local admitting privileges. Women requiring abortions would have to travel long distances or possibly forgo the procedure, according Planned Parenthood Southeast Inc., which runs clinics in Birmingham and Mobile, and Reproductive Health Services, the operator of the Montgomery clinic, who had filed the lawsuit.

Thomspon extended an earlier injunction and said he wanted more information from lawyers before issuing a final order.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said he disagreed with the judge’s ruling and plans to appeal when a final judgment is issued.

“We all want to protect patient safety, but this law doesn’t do that,” Staci Fox, president of Planned Parenthood Southeast, said in a statement. “Politicians passed this law in order to make it impossible for women in Alabama to get abortions, plain and simple.”

Local hospital affiliation requirements have also been introduced and challenged in Texas, Mississippi, Wisconsin and North Dakota.

Proponents contend the measures protect women by allowing a seamless transition from clinic to hospital in the event of procedural complications, ensuring continuity of care.

“As a physician and a governor, I am proud to sign this legislation,” Bentley said in April 2013. “This bill provides appropriate standards of care. It has been endorsed by pro-life groups across Alabama.”

Opponents say such laws – which forced clinics to close in Texas and threatened availability of the procedure in single- facility states of North Dakota and Mississippi – are meant to eliminate abortion in those places without expressly prohibiting it.

Thompson, who was named to the federal bench by former Democratic President Jimmy Carter in 1980, sent the case to trial in March, ruling there was a genuine question as to whether abortion doctors in Montgomery, Mobile or Birmingham would be able to meet the requirement.

Alabama also has abortion clinics in Huntsville and Tuscaloosa, where doctors have been able to comply with the law.

Privileges can be difficult to obtain as some hospitals require associating doctors to admit at least a certain number of patients per month, while other institutions have religious affiliations that compel them to reject applicants.

A U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans last week blocked Mississippi’s law, preventing it from compelling the state’s lone clinic in Jackson to close while the case is still pending. The two doctors associated with that facility were unable to get the requisite privileges.

The appeals court ruled Mississippi couldn’t send abortion patients to adjacent states.

After conclusion of the Alabama trial, Thompson ordered the parties to file briefs on the relevance of available abortion services in neighboring Georgia and Florida.

“The state has not made any abortion procedure illegal,” Alabama lawyers said in their filing, contending trial evidence showed women will proceed to the nearest available facility regardless of what state it’s in.

Disagreeing, lawyers for Planned Parenthood Southeast said in their submission that a state can’t “absolve itself of its constitutional duties by pointing to an individual’s ability to exercise his or her constitutional rights in another state.”

Wisconsin’s law, too, remains blocked while a federal judge in Madison considers whether it can be upheld. A trial was held there in May. The North Dakota case settled after three physicians at a Fargo clinic received admitting privileges.