Federal Judge Rules to Protect Alabama Women’s Access to Safe, Legal Abortion

Calls State’s Basis for Admitting Privileges Requirement “Exceedingly Weak”

August 4, 2014 2:00 pm

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A federal judge has struck down a harmful state law that would have severely restricted access to safe, legal abortion by forcing all but two of the licensed health centers in Alabama to stop providing abortions. Laws like these — which are opposed by the American Medical Association (AMA) and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) — single out doctors who provide abortions and require them to obtain admitting privileges at a local hospital.

After a searching review, that included a 10-day trial, the judge found that:

  • The law would actually make women less safe by “undermining the patient-care goals put forward by the State”;
  • The state’s justifications for the law were “exceedingly weak” and “speculative”;
  • The law “does not reflect the practice of 21st century medicine”; and
  • “Evidence compellingly demonstrates” the requirement would “have the striking result of closing three of Alabama’s five abortion clinics;”

In the opinion, the judge wrote that “if this requirement would not … constitute an impermissible undue burden, then almost no regulation, short of those imposing an outright prohibition on abortion, would.” He also noted that the Department of Health found the requirement unnecessary and that existing regulations already protect public health.

Data, including from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), shows that abortion has over a 99 percent safety record. Moreover, for patients’ safety, the plaintiffs in this case already have plans in place in case of an emergency. As the judge found, these laws put women at risk because they force quality health care providers to close.

“As the judge noted today, the justifications offered for this law are weak at best,” said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU. “Politicians, not doctors, crafted this law for the sole purpose of shutting down women’s health care centers and preventing women from getting safe, legal abortions.”

“This ruling will ensure that women in Alabama will have access to safe, legal abortion,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “And Planned Parenthood will continue to fight for our patients, because a woman’s ability to make personal medical decisions should not depend on where she lives.”

The court found that the health centers’ doctors would not be able to obtain the required privileges for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with quality of the medical care they provide. For example, many hospitals require that the physicians admit a minimum number of patients per year, which the physicians cannot satisfy because the abortion complication rate is so low. The hospitals also require doctors with privileges to reside within close proximity to the hospital, which the Alabama doctors do not because of the climate of violence and harassment in the state.

Abortion providers in Alabama are already licensed by the Alabama Department of Public Health and are subject to extensive regulation related to personnel, physician qualifications, record keeping, and facilities. Alabama does not require doctors who provide other outpatient procedures that have significantly higher complication rates to have staff privileges.

Similar admitting privileges restrictions threaten access to safe, legal abortion across the South. A law in Mississippi — currently blocked by federal court order — would shut down the state’s only remaining abortion provider if allowed to take effect. In Texas, the number of abortion providers has been drastically reduced due to such legislation. Meanwhile, similar laws were recently passed in Oklahoma and Louisiana but have not yet taken effect. Planned Parenthood and the ACLU have also challenged a similar law in Wisconsin in federal court and that law is currently blocked.

The plaintiffs were represented by attorneys from the ACLU, the ACLU of Alabama, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the Montgomery firm Sabel & Sabel. The plaintiffs in this case are Planned Parenthood Southeast and Reproductive Health Services.

More information on the Alabama case can be found at:

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