In striking down Alabama abortion law, judge focuses on South's culture

A federal judge on Monday ruled that an Alabama law violates women’s constitutional rights by making abortions too hard to get. This follows a similar ruling last week about a Mississippi law.

Brynn Anderson/AP
Reproductive Health Services is shown, in Montgomery, Ala., July 30, 2014. Reproductive Health Services is the only abortion clinic in Montgomery and an Alabama law restricting doctors at abortion clinics was ruled unconstitutional because it would unduly hamper women's ability to obtain the medical procedure, a judge said Monday, Aug. 4, 2014.

Citing incidents of hostility against abortion providers in the South, a federal district judge on Monday expanded the scope of federal judicial pushback against a new breed of laws that make it almost impossible for abortion clinics to operate in the South and Midwest.

Judge Myron Thompson ruled that the Women’s Health and Safety Act, signed into law last year in Alabama, violates women’s constitutional rights by making abortions too hard to get. The ruling came less than a week after a panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that Mississippi, too, violated constitutional rights by trying to force the last abortion clinic in the state to close.

Five states – Missouri, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah – have put comparable rules into place, requiring that abortion providers have admission privileges at local hospitals. Oklahoma and Louisiana are set to see stricter abortion clinic rules go into effect in September. But courts have blocked similar laws in Kansas and Wisconsin and now in Mississippi and Alabama.

In the 172-page ruling, Judge Thompson zeroed in on a legal and cultural campaign in conservative states to try to decrease the number of abortions. In addressing the “backdrop” to the laws, he expanded the debate over abortion to include the impact of local cultures and religious views on the ability of American women to have access to abortion.

While acknowledging that most antiabortion protesters are peaceful, Thompson listed examples such as Eric Rudolph, who bombed a Birmingham, Ala., clinic in 1998. Using the examples, Thompson “linked past violence against Alabama abortion clinics to the current political climate against abortion providers,” writes Jim Stinson on the Alabama Media Group website

In another unique legal argument probably aimed at a rural and mostly Southern audience, Thompson compared abortion rights with the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms – noting that a law that allowed only two gun shops in Alabama to remain open “would take a heck of a lot of explaining.”

The slew of recent abortion rulings is part of a broader debate that most legal experts say will have to be settled by the US Supreme Court. Given that it’s largely former Confederate states openly testing the extent to which abortion is supported at the federal level, states’ rights will probably be a factor in such a decision.

In the meantime, Thompson’s ruling was widely hailed by abortion rights groups, which said that it supports their contention that the new state clinic laws infringe on the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision. That Supreme Court ruling affirmed the right of states to regulate abortion clinics as long as rules didn’t put an “undue burden” on women who wanted to have an abortion. Having to travel from 150 to 500 miles for an abortion is too burdensome, the abortion rights supporters argue.

In effect, “politicians passed this law in order to make it impossible for women in Alabama to get abortions, plain and simple," Staci Fox, president of Planned Parenthood Southeast, argued in a statement after Thompson’s ruling.

More practically, the new admission rules for abortion providers “are expected to leave behind a patchwork-quilt of access in low-clinic states,” abortion rights activist Robin Marty writes on Talking Points Memo. “But reproductive rights advocates are cautiously optimistic that recent court rulings may finally stem the tide on these medically unnecessary restrictions.”

Those who have supported the new clinic laws argue that the restrictions improve standards at abortion clinics and institute important protections for women using such services.

In his ruling, Thompson cited Rep. Mike Hubbard (R), Alabama’s House speaker, who said after the law passed last year, “Republicans boldly defended the rights of the unborn and courageously safeguarded the health and safety of Alabama women.”

Thompson’s ruling took note of just how successful antiabortion activism has been in the South. In Texas, for which a Fifth Circuit panel found new admissions procedures constitutional, and where another legal challenge begins Tuesday, half of all abortion clinics have closed since last year.

While the number of abortions has declined nationally over the past decade, Mississippi has the lowest rate in the United States: Four out of every 1,000 women in Mississippi have had one, compared with 27 out of every 1,000 California women.

In his ruling, Thompson documented the challenges of getting an abortion in Alabama, which would lose three of its five remaining clinics if the law takes effect.

He described how Alabama clinics rely on three traveling doctors – one from as far away as Nigeria – to perform the abortions because of cultural antipathy toward the providers. Pressing the issue, Thompson allowed those doctors to testify from behind a curtain, for their safety.

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