Update 6:57 p.m.: Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, signed the bill into law Wednesday evening.
Hours after the Alabama Legislature passed a bill Tuesday night to ban nearly all abortions in the deep-red state, abortion rights organizations chartered a plane to fly over the state capital of Montgomery trailing a banner that declared “Abortion is OK!”
That’s how much confusion there’s been about whether abortion is legal in Alabama. Abortion providers and advocates told VICE News that they’re fielding calls from anxious, confused patients. Women want to know: Is abortion still legal? Is your clinic still open? Can I still get an abortion?
“We’ve never seen it this bad,” said Barbara Ann Luttrell, director of communications and marketing for Planned Parenthood Southeast, which services patients in Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. “It’s never been to the point that folks don’t know that abortion is legal. And that’s for good reason, because this is the most extreme legislation we’ve seen passed since Roe v. Wade.”
Abortion is indeed still legal in Alabama. But the proposed bill would ban all abortion, except for pregnancies that pose a “serious health risk” to the mother. There are no exemptions for rape and incest, and doctors who perform abortions could face up to 99 years in prison.
The three abortion rights organizations that hired the plane want to send a message to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey. If the Republican governor signs the bill, it would not go into effect for six months, and multiple groups, including Planned Parenthood, have already vowed to challenge the legislation in court.
Hundreds of calls have poured in to Planned Parenthood Southeast’s call center since last week, when Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law a bill to ban most abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, or as early as six weeks into pregnancy. The operators at the call center were so overwhelmed that Planned Parenthood Southeast ultimately set up an automated line to reassure people that they could still get abortions.
Domestic violence concerns
One woman who called the center is dealing with domestic violence, Luttrell told VICE News. She was terrified that she couldn’t get an abortion.
“The level of anxiety and fear that she called in with even shook our call center associates, who do this every day,” Luttrell said. Between 6% and 22% of women who get abortions report recently facing violence from a partner, studies show.
The phone hasn’t stopped ringing at the Alabama Women’s Center for Reproductive Alternatives, an abortion clinic in Huntsville, Alabama. It’s one of just three clinics in the state, and it’s the only one to provide abortions till 20 weeks of pregnancy, the legal limit in Alabama. When a reporter called Yashica Robinson, the clinic’s medical director and an abortion provider, she had to unplug her office phone just to talk.
“Many of the patients that travel here to us, here in north Alabama, are already facing so many obstacles just related to their zip code and their financial status to be able to get here, trying to coordinate the time off of work and come up with the finances and arranging travel to make it to our location,” said Robinson, who's also a board member of Physicians for Reproductive Health.
Women sometimes drive six to eight hours to get to the clinic, she said. Patients have also sometimes slept in the clinic’s parking lot, since Alabama requires people who want abortions to undergo in-person counseling, wait 48 hours, and then return for the procedure itself.
Handling the influx of calls drains the clinic’s resources, which are already stretched thin, Robinson said. Because insurance coverage for abortion is also limited in Alabama, the abortion clinic sometimes helps coordinate its patients’ travel, lodging, and finances.
“When we’re already operating with so little resources and then we’re having to pull resources to handle this aspect of it — getting the word out that we’re still there, taking time, you know, with the patients on the phone, to let them know that we’re still available,” she said.
“Fundraising is going through the roof”
The Yellowhammer Fund, the only abortion access fund based in the state, is considering setting up a social media campaign or an automated voicemail to let people know that abortion remains legal in Alabama, its co-founder, Amanda Reyes, told VICE News. But the organization is also seeing a spike in support.
“Fundraising is going through the roof,” Reyes said. The Yellowhammer Fund first started paying for abortions in 2018, and funded more than 300 procedures last year. “We’re going to be really taking all that in, seeing how we can best redistribute that wealth to make sure as many Alabamians as possible can get abortions here.”
If Alabama’s bill is signed into law — and not blocked by a court — Yellowhammer plans to bus women who need abortions out of state to get the care they need, Reyes said.
Not everyone is so distraught over the Alabama ban. Jordan Parker, a college student at Auburn University and a member of the school’s College Republicans, told VICE News that much of the student body is excited about it.
“I hope everyone will be able to reap the benefits,” Parker said. While he supports exceptions for survivors of rape and incest, he believes that leaving those exceptions will make the bill a better vehicle to potentially overturn Roe v. Wade — as the bill’s sponsors want to do.
“It’s great to see the state be an example going forward, along with Georgia, for the rest of the country, that you can stand up for what you believe in,” Parker added.
Cover: The Alabama state Capitol in Montgomery, on July 6, 2018. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)