Planned Parenthood, ACLU file suit to block new Alabama abortion law

An Alabama abortion law passed this spring is an unlawful attempt to shut down abortion clinics in the state, say Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.

By , Staff writer

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    Abortion opponents pray as they gather on the steps of the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Ala., in March. Hundreds gathered to hear speakers, including Gov. Robert Bentley, during the rally. A month later, the governor signed a bill that requires all physicians in the state who perform abortions to have staff privileges at a local hospital. Three of the state's five abortion clinics could close as a result.
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Lawyers for Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on Tuesday asking a federal judge to block enforcement of a new Alabama law that critics say will force the closure of three of the state’s five abortion clinics on July 1.

The new measure, signed into law in April, requires all physicians in the state who perform abortions to have staff privileges at a local hospital.

Abortion clinic officials in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Mobile say they cannot comply with the requirement.

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Lawyers say the new measure is a pretext to prevent abortions in Alabama. A similar provision that would have shut down the only abortion provider in Mississippi was recently blocked by a federal judge in that state.

“The purpose and effect of the requirement, which is wholly unnecessary and unreasonable, is to impose a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking abortion prior to viability,” the Alabama complaint says.

“It is an unreasonable health regulation, and it has the unlawful purpose and effect of imposing an undue burden on women’s right to choose abortion,” the lawsuit says.

Proponents of the law say it is a necessary step to ensure that clinics meet health standards. The author of the law, state Rep. Mary McClurkin, told the Montgomery Advertiser that "when a physician removes a child from a woman, that is the largest organ in a body."

But Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, a staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, calls it part of national strategy by antiabortion activists to exploit novel ways to shut down abortion clinics at the state level.

“We are in court to protect a woman’s ability to make her own personal, private health care decisions,” the president of Planned Parenthood Southeast, Staci Fox, said in a statement. 

Hospital staff privileges can be difficult for an abortion provider to obtain, Ms. Kolbi-Molinas said, because they are generally reserved for physicians who regularly admit patients to the hospital. She said the designation requires that the doctor admit 12 to 48 patients a year.

Abortion is such a safe procedure, she said, that there is no way an abortion provider could come close to meeting such a requirement.

In the few cases that do require emergency treatment, the patient should be permitted to receive medical attention at the closest hospital to the patient without requiring the presence of the doctor who performed the abortion, the lawyer said.

The complaint says that some abortion providers might be denied staff privileges because of a hospital’s religious opposition to abortion. Some require the doctor to reside close enough to the hospital to be available on call, and university hospitals require physicians to obtain a faculty appointment prior to gaining staff privileges.

The 14-page complaint was filed in federal court in Montgomery, Ala. It says that if the law shut down abortion clinics in the state’s three major cities, only two other clinics would remain open in Alabama – in Huntsville and Tuscaloosa.

“If the staff privileges requirement takes effect, women in Montgomery, Birmingham, and all points south would be forced to travel at least 100 miles, and some more than 200 miles … to obtain an abortion in the state,” the suit says.

It adds that most women would have to make the trip twice, first for counseling, and second, at least 24 hours later, for the abortion.

Other similarly situated health-care providers are not required to have staff privileges at a local hospital, the suit says.

The lawsuit names Gov. Robert Bentley and Attorney General Luther Strange as defendants. Also named are the district attorneys in Montgomery County, Jefferson County, Mobile County, and four state health officials.

The case is Planned Parenthood v. Bentley.

[Editor's note: The original sub headline made reference to the incorrect law.]

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