A federal judge struck down Alabama’s admitting privileges law on Monday, arguing the regulation placed an unconstitutional restriction on a woman’s right to abortion.
The law required abortionists to procure admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, which would have effectively caused three of the state’s five abortion facilities to close, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson wrote in a 172-page opinion and accompanying order. Several abortionists live outside the state and would be unable to get the privileges to admit patients to local hospitals. And it’s unlikely local doctors would begin performing abortions because of a history of violence across the South that includes bombings, shootings, and arsons against facilities, the judge claimed.
“The resulting unavailability of abortion in these three cities would impose significant obstacles, burdens, and costs for women across Alabama,” he wrote.
Thompson’s ruling follows the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision last week to strike down Mississippi’s 2012 law requiring all abortionists at the state’s only abortion facility, Jackson Women’s Health Organization, to obtain admitting privileges at a local hospital. There, the judge ruled the law would unconstitutionally force women to seek abortions in neighboring states.
But the same court in March upheld a Texas admitting privileges law which closed several, but not all, of that state’s abortion facilities. According to the two recent decisions, it’s constitutional to require a woman to travel 150 more miles to an abortion facility, but not to force her to travel out of state.
Although Alabama’s law wouldn’t force women out of state, it would have made abortion more inconvenient—an acceptable consequence under the 5th Circuit’s Texas decision. While women could simply go elsewhere for abortions if facilities shut down, Thompson said forcing women to make road trips for the procedure could harm their health. The Department of Public Health reported 8,485 abortions in Alabama in 2013, with 16 performed at hospitals.
While not ruling on the issue of whether the state can justify the law by claiming women could go to other states for abortions, Thompson cited the recent 5th Circuit decision that said Mississippi could not shift its legal burden to provide access to abortion to another state.
In a statement, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said he disagreed with Monday’s ruling and would appeal after Thompson issues a final order. 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.”
The law’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin, said the measure would make the facilities safer. Operation Rescue reports six instances of health and safety violations at Alabama abortion facilities, including a now shut-down Birmingham facility employing untrained staff.
But Thompson sided with the abortionists, who claimed the law was an attempt to shut them down. He called the state’s legitimate medical reasons for imposing the law “weak.” He also said evidence showed doctors wouldn’t be able to gain admitting privileges in Birmingham, Mobile, and Montgomery, the state’s three largest cities, if the law remained in place.
“This ruling must be appealed by the state in the interest of protecting women from substandard practices that endanger their lives every day,” said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue. “Thompson’s ruling reflects absolutely no compassion or concern for the protection of women from substandard operators, as states have a duty to do.”