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Federal Judge Strikes Down Alabama Abortion Law


A federal judge has struck down an Alabama law that limited access to abortions. The law had imposed new rules on doctors who performed the procedure. Today's decision comes less than a week after a federal appeals court blocked a similar law in Mississippi. NPR's Debbie Elliott has been following the legal fights over state abortion restrictions, and she joins us now. And Debbie, this Alabama law required abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges, and the judge in Montgomery today called that unconstitutional. What was the reasoning?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson said he found that the law poses an undue burden for women who are seeking a legal abortion. He says it's unconstitutional because if this law went into effect in Alabama, three of the five clinics that provide abortions in the state would close, and Judge Thompson called that a, quote, "striking result." The clinics had sued to stop the law, saying during the trial that their doctors come from out of state, so they are not even able to qualify for admitting privileges to a local hospital because most local hospitals require a doctor to be in town if they're going to make that arrangement where they have permission to admit patients. Now, in his ruling, Thompson says the only other regulation that would've posed a greater burden would be an outright ban on abortion.

CORNISH: So what happens now?

ELLIOTT: Well, Judge Thompson had already stopped the law from taking effect, so that order will stand. He says he's going to take some written comments before he issues his final ruling and instructions on how things will proceed. But certainly, the case isn't over. Alabama's attorney general, Luther Strange, said he, quote, "respectfully disagrees" with the ruling and plans to appeal. Governor Robert Bentley of Alabama just issued a statement saying he supports that appeal and that he is extremely disappointed in the ruling. He feels like abortion should be illegal and that it was within the state's prerogative to impose tougher restrictions, which she says - and he's a doctor, by the way - he claims would make clinics safer in Alabama. But abortion providers and medical groups have said there is absolutely no medically necessary reason for doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges so that's been a matter of dispute in this case and in others. Staci Fox, president of Planned Parenthood Southeast, one of the organizations that sued over this law - she called the ruling important. She said it ensures women in Alabama can make their own private healthcare decisions without interference from politicians.

CORNISH: Now, Alabama's one of 10 states that have passed these admitting privileges laws. We mentioned Mississippi. Where is this legal battle headed?

ELLIOTT: Well, right now it's at the federal appellate level and at the district level, but there have been mixed results. So it really could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. Just last week, as we mentioned, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked Mississippi's admitting privileges law, and in that case there was only one clinic that performed abortions in Mississippi, and if this law went into effect, that clinic would close. The doctor there has applied for admitting privileges at Jackson area hospitals and has been denied. Now, while the Fifth Circuit blocked the Mississippi law, earlier that same appeals court had ruled that Texas could enforce its law. So right now, all doctors who perform abortions in Texas have to have admitting privileges, and about a third of the clinics in that state have had to close because they were not able to comply. Now, elsewhere district courts have blocked similar laws in Kansas and Wisconsin, but some states have these laws on the books and are enforcing them. Those states include Missouri, Tennessee and Utah. I think as these type of fights make their way through the courts, the question is going to be just how far states can go to regulate abortion in a way that does not infringe on a woman's right to legal abortion under the court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott. Debbie, thanks so much.

ELLIOTT: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.