Alabama joins new antiabortion drive, legal challenge may be next

Alabama joins Kansas, Arkansas, and North Dakota among states that have already tried to dial back abortion access in 2013. Alabama's legislation adds new building requirements for clinics.

Sarah Cole/
People supporting and opposing abortion demonstrate outside of the Alabama Women's Center for Reproductive Alternatives in Huntsville, Ala., in February.

Alabama lawmakers approved a bill late Tuesday night to tighten requirements on abortion clinics in the state, joining a group of Southern and Western states that have already passed similar regulatory legislation this year.

After sailing through the Senate earlier in the evening, the Women’s Health and Safety Act passed the House along largely partisan lines just before midnight. The law includes a provision requiring all doctors performing abortions in the state have admitting privileges at a local hospital, and it adds new building requirements for facilities that host the procedure.

Supporters say the bill is not designed to restrict abortions, but rather to make them safer.

“If an abortion clinic is truly dedicated to providing adequate care, ensuring dependable safeguards, and putting patients’ needs before profits, it will embrace this legislation rather than oppose it,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin (R), in a statement. “I am proud that the state of Alabama is daring to defend the right to life.”

But opponents say that the bill is a backdoor attempt to run Alabama’s four abortion clinics out of business. Most rely on out-of-state doctors to perform abortions, which would run afoul of the new admitting-privileges provision. And the majority of the clinics are not in line with the new building codes – requiring, among other things, doors and hallways wide enough to transport patients on gurneys – according to the state Department of Public Health, the Associated Press reports.

“You are not telling your constituents the real truth – that you are trying to close these clinics so there will be no abortions in Alabama,” said Sen. Harri Anne Smith, an independent, during debate of the bill, according to the AP.

The Alabama legislation, which is expected to be signed into law by Republican Gov. Robert Bentley, mirrors a 2012 Mississippi law that threatens to shutter that state’s only abortion clinic. That law is currently being challenged in court.

Meanwhile, the Kansas Senate approved a law Monday that defines human life as beginning at conception and prohibits any direct or indirect state support for abortions. The law would also prohibit any employees or volunteers of organizations that provide abortions – including Planned Parenthood – “from providing any information on human sexuality to students in public schools,” reports the Kansas City Star.

Alabama and Kansas join Arkansas and North Dakota among states that have already tried to dial back abortion access in 2013. In early March, Arkansas passed what was described as America’s toughest restrictions on abortion, a law making almost all abortions after 12 weeks illegal.

But the state didn’t hold that title for long. Later that month, North Dakota’s lawmakers approved a ban on most abortions after six weeks – the point at which a fetal heartbeat can be detected.

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) said that the law may not be constitutional, but called it a legitimate attempt by the state government to probe the boundaries of Roe v. Wade, Reuters reports.

North Dakota’s law also has a provision requiring a local doctor. And as in Mississippi, it threatens the existence of the single operational abortion facility in the state. The Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo, N.D., has promised to challenge the law in court, according to Reuters.

Legal challenges are also expected to the Arkansas legislation.

Alabama’s new bill passed over the chorus of 200 protesters who gathered outside the statehouse Tuesday. Planned Parenthood executive Nikema Williams told that if the governor signed the bill, she expected one of the state’s clinics would proceed with a legal challenge.

The number of abortion providers in Alabama has dwindled in recent years, falling from 13 in 2005 to eight in 2008 and four in 2012, according to Reuters. 

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