ACLU Sues Over Near-Total Abortion Ban in Alabama

Protesters for women’s rights held a rally Sunday at the Alabama Capitol to protest a law passed last week making abortion a felony in nearly all cases. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

(CN) – Abortion providers backed by the American Civil Liberties Union filed an anticipated lawsuit Friday morning challenging the constitutionality of Alabama’s near-total ban on the procedure, kicking off a legal battle that supporters of the ban hope will land in the nation’s highest court.

It’s been nine days since Alabama’s Republican Governor Kay Ivey signed the law banning abortion even in instances of rape and incest, saying “at least for the short term, this bill may … be unenforceable.”

The law was designed to rise to the U.S. Supreme Court, a test case for the bench remade under the Trump administration to reconsider the 1973 landmark decision Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion up until 22 to 24 weeks of pregnancy.

The 23-page complaint filed in Montgomery federal court by ACLU attorneys representing Alabama abortion providers kicked off that legal fight. It asks the court to declare that the law violates the 14th Amendment’s privacy and liberty rights and to issue an injunction preventing enforcement the law.

“H.B. 314 is the culmination of a near-decade long campaign by the Alabama legislature to eliminate legal abortion in Alabama,” the lawsuit states. “Since 2011, the Alabama legislature has enacted a multitude of laws aimed at restricting and ultimately outlawing abortion in the state.”

The complaint was filed on behalf of Dr. Yashica Robinson, an OB-GYN who performs abortions in Huntsville, as well as Planned Parenthood Southeast and three clinics that perform abortions in the state – Alabama Women’s Center, Reproductive Health Services and West Alabama Women’s Center. In addition to the ACLU, the plaintiffs are also represented by attorneys from Planned Parenthood Federation of America

They sued Alabama Attorney General Steven Marshall, five district attorneys and the leaders of the state’s Department of Public Health, Board of Medical Examiners and Medical Licensure Commission.

If the law were to take effect Nov. 15, according to the complaint, it would disproportionately impact low income and black women in a state that has some of the highest rates of infant mortality in the country.

“Being forced to continue a pregnancy against one’s will can pose a risk to a person’s physical, mental, and emotional health, and even their life, as well as to the stability and well-being of their family, including existing children,” the complaint states.  

Under the law, performing an abortion in Alabama would carry a prison sentence ranging from 10 to 99 years. The only exception is when a woman’s health is at serious risk. The law bans the procedure even in cases of rape or incest.

Doctors who refer a patient for an abortion that would violate the state’s law would jeopardize their medical license and could be charged with criminal solicitation or conspiracy – a charge that comes with a two to 20-year prison sentence. A woman receiving the procedure would not be criminally liable.

In a statement, Dr. Leana Wen, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, slammed the actions of Alabama lawmakers and said public support is on the side of abortion rights activists.

“What we’re seeing in Alabama is a manmade public health emergency and we’re fighting back. To patients seeking safe, legal abortion care in Alabama: this extreme ban hasn’t gone into effect yet — and we will make sure of it,” she said.

Eric Johnston, author of the abortion legislation and president of the Alabama Pro-Life Coalition, told Courthouse News that public opinion in Alabama sides with the strict abortion restrictions. During the midterm elections last November, 59% of the state’s voters approved an amendment to the Alabama Constitution making it the policy of the state to recognize rights for the unborn.

Johnston expects Alabama will lose at the trial level, either after a trial or summary judgment. He expects it to also lose at the 11th Circuit, which will position the state to appeal the case to the high court.

“We hope that it’s an inevitable process, either this law or one of the others matriculating through the courts will get to the Supreme Court and have a meaningful review of Roe,” Johnston said. “So I’m glad that they’re moving on with it. And we’ll hopefully get to end sooner than later.”

Alabama was one of five GOP-led statehouses across the nation to enact abortion bans this year. The state attorney general’s office did not immediately return a request for comment Friday.

The complaint asks the court to have the state pay the ACLU and Planned Parenthood’s attorney’s fees. That’s not a throwaway request. In 2016, the state paid the ACLU of Alabama $1.7 million after the federal courts declared its law requiring abortion providers have hospital admitting privileges unconstitutional.

Also on Friday, Missouri’s Republican Governor Mike Parson signed into law a bill banning abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy. That legislation imposes up to 15 years in prison for doctors who violate the ban. 

Later in the day, a federal judge in Mississippi temporarily blocked a state law banning abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can happen around six weeks of pregnancy.

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