On Monday, a federal judge found Alabama’s abortion law unconstitutional. The law was enacted in 2013 and required doctors providing services at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.
The judge, U.S District Judge Myron Thompson, cited that this provision imposes an “undue burden” on women seeking to obtain the procedure. The law would have resulted in the closing of three of only five abortion clinics in Alabama causing what the judge called a “striking result” for women seeking services in the state. Some women would be prevented from getting an abortion, and some women would have been delayed in getting an abortion, he wrote. Delays expose women to risk of complications.
Thompson went on to address lawmakers in his 172-page finding, saying that the Alabama congress “exceeded their authority” upon passing this unconstitutional abortion law last year. Thompson also extended a previous order blocking enforcement of the law. He upheld a portion of the law, which remained unchallenged, requiring only doctors to perform abortion procedures and increasing ambulatory standards in clinics.
Supporters of the law contend it was designed to protect women by granting them access to doctors with hospital privileges. Not so, says Susan Watson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama. The law does not have the support of the American Medical Association nor the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
The lawsuit began when clinic operators, Reproductive Health Services and Planned Parenthood, sued to block the requirement in June 2013. Their clinics in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile use doctors from outside the region who do not have admitting privileges at local hospitals. Both operators have not been successful in hiring local doctors at their clinics. Clinics in Tuscaloosa and Huntsville both have local doctors on staff that do have hospital admitting privileges.
A hospital generally grants admitting privileges to a doctor who establishes local residency and admits a certain number of patients annually. This can be a difficult requirement for an abortion provider to meet due to the level of harassment some doctors face. Many choose to live out-of-state rather than live in the community where they practice.
Opponents of the law also cited that admitting privileges are not medically necessary given the procedures performed by an abortion clinic. Studies show the complication rate to be lower for an abortion than for many other routine medical procedures. Thomson called the argument for women’s health by requiring admitting privileges “exceedingly weak,” citing the rarity of serious complications.
A Mississippi federal appeals court struck down a similar law last week that would have closed the only clinic there. Kansas and Wisconsin have blocked similar laws as well. However, North Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Texas, and Missouri have enacted laws requiring admitting privileges. Texas courts will examine a law this month requiring increased ambulatory services at all abortion clinics.
As Thompson allows for time to review additional written arguments from both sides, he stated, “This case is not closed.” Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange promised to appeal the ruling. Governor Robert Bentley promised his support in the appeal. Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard called the decision “merely a hurdle.” For now, Judge Thomson’s finding stands and the 2013 abortion law in Alabama will remain unconstitutional.
By Stacey Wagner