Planned Parenthood and the ACLU sued Alabama Friday over the state’s near-total abortion ban — which is exactly what Alabama Republicans wanted. It’s the first step in what promises to be a long legal battle over whether to let the ban go into effect.
Under Alabama’s law, abortions would only be allowed if a pregnancy posed a “serious health risk” to the mother. There are no exceptions for rape or incest, and abortion providers could spend up to 99 years in prison for performing the procedure.
If that sounds unconstitutionally severe, Republicans engineered the law that way: Its backers wanted to force abortion rights advocates to sue, so that the law could be used as a vehicle to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide.
“The Alabama legislature has been pushing abortion care further and further out of reach for years with medically unnecessary and politically-motivated restrictions, and this extreme abortion ban shows us just how far they’ll go to push their anti-abortion agenda,” Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, said in a statement. “This law is blatantly unconstitutional, and the ACLU will not stand by while politicians emboldened by President [Donald] Trump’s anti-abortion agenda exploit our health and our lives for political gain.”
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. district court in Alabama, on behalf of Planned Parenthood Southeast, Alabama’s three abortion clinics, and Yashica Robinson, a doctor who performs abortions in the state. The ACLU and Planned Parenthood lay out the long history of Alabama’s attempts to restrict abortions and argues that the “serious health risk” exception is tailored so narrowly as to be impossible to comply with.
The lawsuit also argues that banning abortion will disproportionately harm black and low-income people. While black people make up less than a third of Alabama’s population, they account for over 60% of people who get abortions in the state, according to the lawsuit. Most of the abortion clinics’ patients are also low-income.
In a call with journalists last week, shortly after the Alabama legislature passed the ban, a reporter asked Leana Wen, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, what she would say to people who believe that filing a lawsuit over the ban would play right into anti-abortion activists’ hands.
“We have no choice,” Wen replied. “For us, this is about our patients’ lives. We have to file lawsuits. We have to fight through every channel, through the legislatures, through the courts, through the ballot boxes.”
So far this year, state legislatures have introduced more than 350 abortion restrictions, according to a tally by the Guttmacher Institute. Last week, Missouri’s legislature passed a bill to ban abortion after about eight weeks, or before many people know they’re pregnant; another four states have also passed laws that would ban abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.
None of those laws are currently in effect, and abortion remains legal in every state.
Cover image: Kay Metcalf chants alongside opponents of the abortion law passed last week by the Missouri legislature on Tuesday, May 21, 2019 outside of Columbia City Hall. The recent laws regulating abortion in Missouri, Alabama and Georgia spurred protests nationwide. (Armond Feffer/Missourian via AP)