Alabama abortion law that restricts doctors is unconstitutional, judge rules

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A new Alabama law restricting doctors who perform abortions would force several women’s clinics to shut down, placing unconstitutional restrictions on a woman’s right to obtain one, a federal judge ruled Monday.

Several doctors live outside the state and would be unable to gain the privileges to admit patients to local hospitals required by the law, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson wrote in a 172-page opinion and an accompanying order. Furthermore, it’s unlikely that local doctors would begin performing abortions because of a history of violence across the South that includes bombings, shootings and arsons against clinics, the judge said.

That would effectively force three of the state’s five abortion clinics to close, the judge wrote. Those clinics are in the state’s three largest cities.

“The resulting unavailability of abortion in these three cities would impose significant obstacles, burdens, and costs for women across Alabama,” he wrote.

Susan Watson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, said the law wasn’t designed to protect women, as supporters maintain.

Republican Gov. Robert Bentley, a physician by trade who signed the law, criticized the decision and called abortion “a fundamental assault on the sanctity of innocent human life.”

Clinics in Birmingham and Mobile run by Planned Parenthood Southeast and the Montgomery clinic operated by Reproductive Health Services filed the lawsuit, saying they would have to close because they use out-of-town doctors without admitting privileges and have been unable to get local doctors with privileges to serve their clinics. The state’s other two clinics, in Tuscaloosa and Huntsville, use local doctors with admitting privileges.

The law’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin of Indian Springs, said the measure would make the clinics safer, while clinic operators said it was an attempt to shut them down through a regulation they could not meet.

Thompson agreed with the clinics.

Two doctors who perform abortions in Montgomery live in Nigeria and Chicago and couldn’t meet residency requirements and other rules set by hospitals, Thompson said. The doctor who lives in Nigeria used to practice in Alabama and now stays in Atlanta during periodic trips to perform abortions, Thompson wrote.

Similarly, two Georgia doctors who travel to Birmingham and Mobile to perform abortions also couldn’t meet the requirements for staff privileges in those cities, he said.

New doctors are unlikely to begin performing abortions in the state because of the “detrimental professional consequences” of being associated with procedure and a history of violence that includes bombings, shootings and arsons against clinics across the South, the judge said.

Two of Alabama’s five licensed abortion clinics are temporarily not performing abortions, but not because of the physician requirement. Planned Parenthood Southeast closed its Birmingham clinic in January after firing two employees for selling an abortion medication to a person in the clinic’s parking lot. The clinic has replaced its staff and plans to resume services after an inspection by state health officials.

Alabama Women’s Center for Reproductive Alternatives in Huntsville closed in late June because it couldn’t comply with another part of the 2013 law that took effect July 1. It requires clinics to have wide halls and doors and improved fire safety systems like a surgical treatment center. The Huntsville clinic is trying to move to a new location that meets the requirements, said Brian Hale, attorney for the state Department of Public Health.

The Department of Public Health reports that 8,485 pregnancies were terminated in Alabama in 2013, with 16 done at hospitals and the rest at abortion clinics.

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