(CN) - A federal judge ruled Thursday that Alabama cannot enforce two abortion laws that would have shuttered women’s health clinics located near schools and banned the safest and most common procedure for second trimester abortions.
In a 148-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson said the laws, enacted in May 2016, unconstitutionally imposed an undue burden on a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.
He permanently enjoined the state from enforcing the laws, which he temporarily blocked last year.
The “school-proximity law” would have prohibited the Alabama Department of Public Health from issuing or renewing licenses to abortion clinics located within 2,000 feet of a K-8 public school.
The plaintiffs, Tuscaloosa-based reproductive health clinic West Alabama Women’s Center and Huntsville-based Alabama Women’s Center, are both located near schools, and argued they would have been forced to shut down if the law went into effect.
The two clinics, represented by American Civil Liberties Union attorneys, provided 72 percent of all abortions in Alabama in 2014, and are the only providers of abortions beginning at 15 weeks of pregnancy, according to the ruling.
“If the Huntsville clinic closed, a woman in Huntsville would need to travel at least 200 miles round-trip to Birmingham for the next-closest abortion provider,” Thompson said in the ruling. “Without a clinic in Tuscaloosa, a woman there would need to travel at least 110 miles round-trip to Birmingham.”
The judge said that the increased travel times, along with the fact that Alabama law already requires women to make two trips to a clinic 48 hours apart in order to obtain an abortion, would result in some women taking an unwanted pregnancy to term.
“Thus, Alabama women attempting to obtain a pre-viability abortion would experience substantial, and even insurmountable, burdens if the school-proximity law were to take effect,” Thompson said.
The judge said that the legislature failed to provide an explanation of the purpose of the law, which was originally drafted by Reverend James Henderson, who is a leader of anti-abortion protests that occur outside of the Huntsville clinic.
The state told the court that the purpose of the law was to minimize “disturbance in the educational environment” and to support a parent’s right to control his or her children’s exposure to the subject of abortion, because there are sometimes protesters demonstrating outside of the clinics.
The judge said there was no evidence that children or parents at the school near the Tuscaloosa clinic are even aware that an abortion clinic is located nearby, and that was also no evidence to suggest any disturbance to the educational environment of the two schools near the Huntsville.
The second challenged law, called the Alabama Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act, pertains to dilation and evacuation procedures, which are the most common method of second-trimester abortions. Referred to as the “fetal-demise law” by the court, this statute effectively criminalizes D&E procedures, unless the physician induces the fetus’s “demise” before performing the procedure.
The state argued that the law would promote “integrity and ethics of the medical profession” as well as “respect for life, compassion, and humanity in society at large,” and that “fetal demise” could be safely achieved before D&E abortions with one of three procedures: umbilical-cord transection, potassium-chloride injection, or digoxin injection.
“The court concludes that the proposed fetal-demise methods are not feasible in the plaintiff clinics and that requiring the use of those methods would pose a substantial obstacle to women seeking second-trimester abortions in the State,” Thompson said.
He said that there is no training available for technically difficult procedures like potassium-chloride injections and cord transection, and that no data are available on the appropriate dosage, timing, and risks of digoxin for women between 15 and 18 weeks of pregnancy.
“Because it imposes an undue burden on the right of women in Alabama to obtain a pre-viability abortion, the court holds the fetal-demise law unconstitutional,” Thompson said.
The judge said in his ruling that there is already a substantial “climate of hostility” surrounding legal abortions in Alabama, and that doctors willing to provide abortions are rare, and face harassment and sometimes even death threats because of their work.
Mike Lewis, a spokesman for the Alabama attorney general’s office, told Courthouse News the state plans to appeal the ruling.
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