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Federal judge strikes down Alabama’s restrictions on abortion doctors

Alabama’s requirement that abortion clinic doctors have admitting privileges at local hospitals unconstitutionally burdens women’s rights to the medical procedure, a federal judge ruled.

While the decision is a defeat for abortion opponents who, in recent years, have pressed legislators across the country to enact laws limiting availability and regulating those who perform the procedure, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in Montgomery, Alabama, confined his ruling today to the parties in the case before him and declined to immediately issue a sweeping injunction.

“The requirement would have the striking result of closing three of Alabama’s five abortion clinics, clinics which perform only early abortions, long before viability,” Thompson said. If such a requirement doesn’t constitute “an impermissible undue burden, then almost no regulation, short of those imposing an outright prohibition on abortion, would.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade and subsequent decisions, has declared women have a constitutional right to an abortion before a fetus is capable of surviving outside the womb and that lawmakers can’t unduly burden access to the procedure.

The Alabama measure, signed into law by Republican Governor Robert Bentley in 2013, would force clinics in three of the state’s biggest cities to close because their doctors, who are from out of state, can’t get local admitting privileges. Women requiring abortions would have to travel long distances or possibly forgo the procedure, according Planned Parenthood Southeast Inc., which runs clinics in Birmingham and Mobile, and Reproductive Health Services, the operator of the Montgomery clinic, who had filed the lawsuit.

Thomspon extended an earlier injunction and said he wanted more information from lawyers before issuing a final order.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said he disagreed with the judge’s ruling and plans to appeal when a final judgment is issued.

“We all want to protect patient safety, but this law doesn’t do that,” Staci Fox, president of Planned Parenthood Southeast, said in a statement. “Politicians passed this law in order to make it impossible for women in Alabama to get abortions, plain and simple.”

Local hospital affiliation requirements have also been introduced and challenged in Texas, Mississippi, Wisconsin and North Dakota.

A U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans last week blocked Mississippi’s law, preventing it from compelling the state’s lone clinic in Jackson to close while the case is still pending. The two doctors associated with that facility were unable to get the requisite privileges. The appeals court ruled Mississippi couldn’t send abortion patients to adjacent states.

Wisconsin’s law, too, remains blocked while a federal judge in Madison considers whether it can be upheld. A trial was held there in May. The North Dakota case settled after three physicians at a Fargo clinic received admitting privileges.

The Alabama case is Planned Parenthood Southeast Inc. v. Strange, 13-cv-405, U.S. District Court, Middle District of Alabama (Montgomery).

Proponents contend the measures protect women by allowing a seamless transition from clinic to hospital in the event of procedural complications, ensuring continuity of care.

Opponents say such laws are meant to eliminate abortion in those places without expressly prohibiting it.

Privileges can be difficult to obtain as some hospitals require associating doctors to admit at least a certain number of patients per month, while other institutions have religious affiliations that compel them to reject applicants.