Federal US District Court  Judge Myron Thompson ruled yesterday that an Alabama TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion provider) law requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges is unconstitutional.

In his 172-page opinion, Judge Thompson detailed the history of violence against Alabama abortion providers, explaining that the context of violence could not be overlooked in deciding whether the admitting privileges requirement placed an undue burden on a woman’s right to obtain a legal abortion. Specifically, Judge Thompson recounted the 1993 murder of Dr. David Gunn, an Alabama resident who provided abortion services in Alabama and Florida; the 1997 arson of a clinic in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; the 1998 bombing of the Birmingham, Alabama clinic by extremist Eric Robert Rudolf; and more recent incidents of violence, harassment, and intimidation, including an incident five or six years ago when someone drove through the front of the Tuscaloosa clinic. In addition, during the 10-day bench trial, doctors – who were identified by pseudonyms and had to testify from behind a black curtain – described their “daily fears” as abortion providers in the state, explaining how they had not only experienced threats to their professional reputations but also to their personal safety.

In this climate, none of the doctors involved in the case – many of whom travel into the state to provide services at the Alabama clinics - could obtain admitting privileges at local hospitals, leading Alabama’s clinics – already dwindling in number – to close.

“At last sanity,” said Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal. “The Feminist Majority Foundation has been defending the abortion clinics in Alabama since 1989, and Judge Thompson’s account of the violence was spot on. In the hostile climate created by extremists, it is no wonder that doctors have to be flown in to provide care. The TRAP law had only one purpose: to close comprehensive reproductive health clinics for women.”

Judge Thompson found that hostility toward abortion providers created significant obstacles to recruiting local doctors, who could perhaps – though not certainly – obtain admitting privileges, including “that the number of abortion doctors nationally and throughout the South is declining; the decision to perform abortions carries detrimental professional consequences in Alabama; violence against and harassment of abortion providers, beyond run-of-the-mill political protest, persist in the State.” Also “prior attempts to recruit local doctors have failed dramatically; and there are significant regulatory barriers to entry for a new doctor to begin providing abortions at any scale.”

Given this situation, and finding that the law was  unnecessary to protect patient health and safety, Judge Thompson ruled that Alabama’s admitting privileges requirement places a needless difficulty on a woman’s right to an abortion. “The evidence compellingly demonstrates that 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.”

Alabama passed the admitting privileges requirement in 2013. The law was immediately challenged by Reproductive Health Services and Planned Parenthood Southeast which operate comprehensive women’s health clinics in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Mobile. As a result, the law has not been enforced. 

Judge Thompson asked the parties in the case to provide more information to determine whether a permanent injunction of the law is necessary. In the meantime, the law will continue to go unenforced against the plaintiffs.

After the ruling, CEO and President of Planned Parenthood Southeast Staci Fox issued a statement saying, “Politicians passed this law in order to make it impossible for women in Alabama to get abortions, plain and simple. … This victory ensures that women in Alabama can make their own private health care decisions without the interference from politicians.”

Judge Thompson, an African-American judge appointed to the bench by President Carter, delayed his decision in order to review a ruling by a panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upholding a preliminary injunction against a similar Mississippi TRAP law. The Fifth Circuit opinion, written by District Court Judge E. Grady Jolly, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, was decided 2-1.

Media Resources: US District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, Northern Division 8/4/2014; Alabama Media Group 7/31/2014; Federal Judicial Center; Feminist Newswire 7/29/2014, 6/12/2013; US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit 7/29/14

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