(CN) — An Alabama federal judge on Sunday blocked state officials from enforcing a controversial ban on abortions through May, a policy ostensibly aimed at limiting the strain on health care resources during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The plaintiffs have shown that, with no injunction in place, some women would very likely be forced to carry their pregnancies to term; others would face serious obstacles that render obtaining an abortion very difficult,” Senior U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, a Jimmy Carter appointee, wrote in his 56-page opinion.
The judge added, “Further, they have demonstrated a meaningful risk of unwanted prosecutions that deter abortion providers and, in turn, create a substantial obstacle for women seeking abortions. These injuries are substantial.”
The lawsuit, brought in the Middle District of Alabama by four women’s health organizations and an OB-GYN who provide abortions in the state, challenges a March 27 order, extended on April 3, postponing nonessential medical procedures, dental work and surgeries until at least April 30. The order only made exceptions for medical emergencies or procedures that are “necessary to avoid serious harm from an underlying condition or disease.”
During oral arguments last week, the state’s health czar Scott Harris testified that the order used this vague language so medical professionals could exercise discretion.
But the doctor who brought the suit against Alabama, Yashica Robinson, said she feared the state would use the order to prosecute abortion providers.
She said she’s previously been unfairly targeted by federal prosecutors, who brought since-dismissed charges of health care fraud against her in 2014 for purchasing misbranded intrauterine devices that were also bought by other providers who weren’t prosecuted.
Robinson is the medical director of the Alabama Women’s Center, another plaintiff in the case and the only abortion clinic in Huntsville, where it has operated for almost 20 years.
Siding with Robinson and her co-plaintiffs, Judge Thompson ruled Sunday that the state’s restrictions could be seen as a violation of the 14th Amendment.
Because Alabama’s restrictive regulations prohibit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy with few narrow exceptions, postponing April abortions could turn legal procedures into criminal acts. Alabama juries can put abortion providers in prison for up to 99 years if they are found guilty of performing an illegal procedure.
“For at least some women, a mandatory postponement until April 30 would operate as a prohibition of abortion, entirely nullifying their right to terminate their pregnancies, or would impose a substantial burden on their ability to access an abortion,” Thompson wrote.
Robinson and the women’s health groups, represented by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood, argued in their lawsuit that previability abortions qualify as an exception to the state’s ban on nonessential procedures “because forcing anyone to continue a pregnancy against their will threatens serious harm to their health.” The providers noted they had already begun turning away patients due to the state’s order.
Thompson said that despite leeway given to the state during an emergency, the court had to intervene.
“A fundamental right is at stake; that right, for some women, is subject to a possible permanent denial, not a mere delay or temporary denial; and, based on the Supreme Court’s clear holdings on the right to an abortion, the State’s asserted interests, even when viewed with a tremendous degree of deference, cannot support the accompanying deprivation of a Fourteenth Amendment right,” the judge wrote.
Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, applauded the ruling and said it “ensures that Alabamians can continue to access the abortions they need to protect their health during this crisis.”
“Preventing someone from getting an abortion doesn’t do anything to stop the Covid-19 virus, it just takes the decision whether to have a child out of their hands,” Kolbi-Molinas said in a statement.