Judge extends temporary restraining order on Alabama abortion law

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U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson (Montgomery Advertiser, Amanda Sowards)

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson (Montgomery Advertiser, Amanda Sowards)

A federal judge last week extended a temporary restraining order against an Alabama abortion law, saying the court needed more time to consider how to move forward in a lawsuit brought against it.

The restraining order prevents the state from enforcing a portion of the Women’s Health and Safety Act, signed by Gov. Robert Bentley last year, that requires every physician that works at an Alabama abortion clinic to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Currently, the clinics are required to have at least one physician with those privileges, or to contract with one who does.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson extended the restraining order to April 2 in a ruling last Wednesday. The ruling did not give specific reasons why the court needed the additional time.

Three clinics, including Montgomery-based Reproductive Health Services, have sued to stop the admitting privileges requirement, saying it is medically unnecessary and that the safety of abortion procedures means it would be impossible for every doctor to have the minimum number of patients hospitals usually require to extend admitting privileges.

The plaintiffs say that they will be forced to close their doors if the provision goes into effect. The Attorney General’s office, representing the state, says the impact of the requirement won’t be known until the law goes into effect.

Both sides want to avoid trial, and have sought summary judgment in the case. At a hearing last month to determine what would happen if Thompson denied summary judgment, the judge noted that the plaintiffs and the state had significant differences on the facts of the case, which might require a trial to resolve.

A call to Wayne Sabel, a Montgomery attorney representing Planned Parenthood’s clinics in Birmingham and Mobile, was not immediately returned Monday morning. Andrew Brasher, Solicitor General of the State of Alabama, representing the state in the case, said Monday he expected a decision before the restraining order expires next week.

Had Thompson not acted, the restraining order would have expired today.

The state of Alabama currently has five abortion clinics. Clinics in Huntsville and Tuscaloosa have said they can meet the admitting privileges requirement, at least for now.

The law also makes it a felony for a nurse, nurse practitioner, physician’s assistant or anyone who is not a doctor to administer an abortion-inducing drug, and requires abortion facilities to be built up to ambulatory clinic standards. Those provisions have not been challenged in the lawsuit before Thompson. Clinic operators have said they can comply with the building requirements, although they will be costly.

Further appeals are likely following Thompson’s decision. The U.S. Supreme Court last November allowed a Texas law with similar requirements to go into effect while a lawsuit against it goes forward; abortion rights activists argued in that case that the requirement is responsible for closing a number of Texas’ abortion clinics. A 2012 Mississippi admitting privileges law, which formed the basis of Alabama’s statute, has also been challenged in federal court.

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