Alabama’s new abortion clinic law lands in federal court

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A capitol police officer asks anti-abortion protesters to no interfere with a Planned Parenthood rally against abortion related bills on the steps of the Alabama State House in Montgomery on Tuesday, April 2, 2013.(Mickey Welsh/Montgomery Advertiser)

A capitol police officer asks anti-abortion protesters to no interfere with a Planned Parenthood rally against abortion related bills on the steps of the Alabama State House in Montgomery on Tuesday, April 2, 2013.(Mickey Welsh/Montgomery Advertiser)

The future of three of Alabama’s abortion clinics may depend on a federal judge’s consideration of access and geography.

In an hour-long hearing Thursday, attorneys argued back and forth on whether the three Alabama clinics seeking to block a state law imposing new regulations on abortion providers could still operate under those requirements, and what constituted adequate access to abortion services.

Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union representing Montgomery-based Reproductive Health Services, told U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson that the question was critical, with the law’s effective date quickly rushing up.

“On Monday, plaintiffs will either have to shut their doors altogether, or stop offering abortion services, she said.”

The law, known as HB 57, requires physicians at abortion clinics to have the ability to admit patients at local hospitals; forbids anyone but a physician to perform an abortion and requires clinics to be built up to ambulatory clinic requirements. Supporters of the law say it is designed to ensure women’s safety; opponents say the measures are medically unnecessary and designed to drive the clinics out of business.

There are five abortion clinics in the state. Thompson said he would have a decision by Friday.

The suit, brought by Reproductive Health Services and Planned Parenthood Southeast, which operates clinics in Birmingham and Mobile, focuses specifically on the admitting privileges requirement.

In granting admitting privileges, Kolbi-Molinas said, hospitals generally require doctors to live nearby and guarantee admission of a minimum number of patients. On the first part, Kolbi-Molinas cited an affidavit filed by June Ayers, the director of Reproductive Health Services, who said that a doctor who had worked for the clinic for 10 years quit last year after an unredacted copy of her medical license — with address and contract information — was published on a website that “encourages harassment of abortion providers.” Kolbi-Molinas also cited a history of violence against clinics in the state that made it difficult for doctors to locate in Alabama.

On the second, Kolbi-Molinas said the relatively low number of complications from abortion procedures meant that doctors at clinics would never be able to meet those requirements.

“No doctor in good faith could apply to a hospital and say they would send that number of patients from the clinic, because that’s the nature of the practice,” she said.

Speaking for the state, Deputy Solicitor General Andrew Brasher disputed Kolbi-Molinas’ characterization of the admitting privileges requirement, saying there were “special categories” with significantly lower patient requirements, and some “that can be waived for good cause.” Clinics in Tuscaloosa and Huntsville that had been able to find physicians with admitting privileges, Brasher said, who added that those clinics performed more abortion procedures than the other three.

“There are two clinics with doctors or staff who can get admitting privileges, and those clinics are performing the majority of abortions in the state,” he said.

The plaintiffs said the Tuscaloosa doctor is in his 70s, and has a gynecological practice with a patient volume that allows him to meet the admission requirements.

Thompson asked both parties several questions about the availability of clinics to women in the state, particularly with abortion providers operating in Columbus, Ga. and Pensacola, Fla., both near the Alabama border. The judge also questioned if the number of clinics operating in the state was important.

“What difference does it make if there’s five or two facilities?” he asked Kolbi-Molinas. Kolbi-Molinas replied that “no court had upheld a regulation that closes the majority of clinics in the state.”

David Byrne, chief legal advisor to Gov. Robert Bentley, told Thompson that he should consider the “coverage” Planned Parenthood Southeast provides in the region in considering the access question.

– posted by Brian Lyman

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