An Alabama law restricting doctors at abortion clinics is unconstitutional because it would unduly hamper women's ability to obtain the medical procedure, a federal judge ruled Monday.
US District Judge Myron Thompson, in a 172-page opinion and an accompanying order, said state lawmakers exceeded their authority when they passed a law last year requiring doctors at abortion clinics to have hospital admitting privileges.
Thompson extended an earlier order blocking enforcement of the law and said he would issue a final order after considering more written arguments from lawyers.
"This case is not closed," Thompson wrote.
The decision came days after a federal appeals court blocked a similar law in Mississippi.
Susan Watson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, said the law wasn't designed to protect women, as supporters maintain.
"Major medical organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, oppose them," she said of the Alabama law and similar ones.
In a statement, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said he disagreed with the ruling and would appeal after Thompson issues a final order.
Clinics in Birmingham and Mobile run by Planned Parenthood Southeast and the Montgomery clinic operated by Reproductive Health Services filed the lawsuit, saying they would have to close because they use out-of-town doctors without admitting privileges and have been unable to get local doctors with privileges to serve their clinics. The state's other two clinics, in Tuscaloosa and Huntsville, use local doctors with admitting privileges.
The law's sponsor, Republican Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin of Indian Springs, said the measure would make the clinics safer, while clinic operators said it was an attempt to shut them down through a regulation they could not meet.
Thompson agreed with the clinics. In his opinion, Thompson said evidence showed doctors wouldn't be able to gain admitting privileges in Birmingham, Mobile and Montgomery, the state's three largest cities, should the law remain in place.
Two doctors who perform abortions in Montgomery live in Nigeria and Chicago and couldn't meet residency requirements and other rules set by hospitals, Thompson said. Similarly, two Georgia doctors who travel to Birmingham and Mobile to perform abortions also couldn't meet the requirements for staff privileges in those cities, he said.
"The resulting unavailability of abortion in these three cities would impose significant obstacles, burdens, and costs for women across Alabama ..." he wrote.
New doctors are unlikely to begin performing abortions in the state because of the "detrimental professional consequences" of being associated with procedure and a history of violence that includes bombings, shootings and arsons against clinics, the judge said.
Similar laws have been blocked by federal courts in Kansas and Wisconsin, while they have taken effect in Missouri, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Utah.
Two of Alabama's five licensed abortion clinics are temporarily not performing abortions, but not because of the physician requirement. Planned Parenthood Southeast closed its Birmingham clinic in January after firing two employees for selling an abortion medication to a person in the clinic's parking lot. The clinic has replaced its staff and plans to resume services after an inspection by state health officials.
Alabama Women's Center for Reproductive Alternatives in Huntsville closed in late June because it couldn't comply with another part of the 2013 law that took effect July 1. It requires clinics to have wide halls and doors and improved fire safety systems like a surgical treatment center. The Huntsville clinic is trying to move to a new location that meets the requirements, said Brian Hale, attorney for the state Department of Public Health.
The Department of Public Health reports that 8,485 pregnancies were terminated in Alabama in 2013, with 16 done at hospitals and the rest at abortion clinics.