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Federal judge blocks enforcement of Ala. abortion restrictions

July 14, 2016 — A federal judge on Wednesday issued an order that temporarily halts enforcement of two new Alabama abortion restrictions, the AP/Sacramento Bee reports (Chandler, AP/Sacramento Bee, 7/13).

Laws at issue

One of the laws (SB 363), scheduled to take effect Aug. 1, will ban a medically proven method of abortion. The law, proposed by state Sen. Phil Williams (R), includes limited exceptions in instances of a "serious health risk" to the woman. The exception does not apply to mental health concerns. Under the law, physicians who provide the banned method of abortion care would be penalized.

Alabama is among several states that have introduced such a ban. Courts have blocked similar measures in Kansas and Oklahoma. According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, the bans are unconstitutional because they impede private medical decisions.

Another law (SB 205), also scheduled to take effect on Aug. 1, will prohibit the location and licensure of abortion clinics "within 2,000 feet of a K-8 public school."

In April, the State Committee of Public Health also approved a regulation that requires abortion providers to give a woman a hard copy of her medical files after she obtains an abortion. The measure was approved as part of a broader array of requirements for clinics that do not have a provider on staff with admitting privileges.

Lawsuit details

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Alabama last month challenged the two laws and the new regulation by filing a supplemental complaint to a 2015 lawsuit regarding the requirement that abortion providers have admitting privileges with a nearby hospital. ACLU of Alabama filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama on behalf of the Alabama Women's Center for Reproductive Alternatives, the West Alabama Women's Center and abortion providers who offer care at those clinics.

The clinics noted that the latest restrictions "would inflict severe and irreparable injury on the plaintiffs' patients if enforced." Specifically, they noted that the clinic zoning requirement would shut down clinics located in Huntsville and Tuscaloosa. According to data from the Alabama Department of Public Health, those two clinics provided nearly three-quarters of the abortion care in the state in 2014.

In addition, the lawsuit noted that the new requirement regarding patients' medical files would "jeopardize" patient privacy by requiring them "to receive a paper trail of their reproductive health care." The lawsuit also detailed the harmful effects of the ban on a medically proven method of abortion (Women's Health Policy Report, 7/12).

Judge's order

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson issued a temporary restraining order that bars the state from enforcing SB 363 and SB 205 (Lyman, Montgomery Advertiser, 7/13). Thompson said an evidentiary hearing will take place on Oct. 4. The order will expire three weeks after the hearing (Cason, AL.com, 7/13).

According to Thompson, each party's counsel agreed to the delay.

Comments

Susan Watson, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, said of the judge's order that she was "delighted for the women of Alabama" (AP/Sacramento Bee, 7/13). "These laws would endanger women by cutting off access to medical care that women need," she said, adding that the laws are unconstitutional, "just like other restrictions politicians have passed in their relentless attacks on women's access to reproductive health care."

Further, Watson said she does not expect the laws to withstand the legal challenge. She said, "We remain confident that as this case progresses, the court will [see] these restrictions for what they really are -- an attempt to block a woman from accessing an abortion, which cannot stand" (Montgomery Advertiser, 7/13).