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Alabama Lawmakers Move To Outlaw Abortion In Challenge To Roe v. Wade

May 1, 2019
Originally published on May 14, 2019 8:27 pm

In what would likely become the most restrictive abortion ban in the country, the Alabama House Tuesday passed a bill that would make it a crime for doctors to perform abortions at any stage of a pregnancy, unless a woman's life is threatened. The legislation is part of a broader anti-abortion strategy to prompt the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider the right to abortion.

Republican state Rep. Terri Collins of Decatur, Ala., defended her "Human Life Protection Act" during at times contentious debate on the House floor.

"This bill is focused on that baby that's in the womb that is a person," Collins said. "That baby, I believe, would choose life."

Democratic lawmakers walked out in protest before the final 74-3 vote. During debate, they questioned the motive for an abortion ban in a state that has refused to expand Medicaid. "I do support life, but there are some people that just support birth, they don't support life," said Democratic Rep. Merika Coleman of Birmingham, Ala. "Because after a child is born there are some things that need to happen. We need to make sure that child has adequate health care," Coleman said.

The Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity coalition demonstrated outside the Alabama State House last month.
Debbie Elliott / NPR

Other states, including neighboring Georgia and Mississippi, have passed laws that prohibit abortion once a fetal heartbeat can be detected. But Alabama's ban would apply even earlier.

"When a woman is pregnant, an abortion is no longer legal," says Collins, explaining the bill.

The bill criminalizes abortion, meaning doctors would face felony jail time up to 99 years if convicted. The only exceptions are for a serious health risk to the pregnant woman or a lethal anomaly of the fetus. There are no exceptions for cases of rape or incest. A woman would not be held criminally liable for having an abortion.

Collins says the bill follows a constitutional amendment approved by Alabama voters last year that recognizes the "rights of unborn children." It defies the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision that protects a woman's right to abortion.

"This bill is simply about Roe v. Wade," says Collins. "The decision that was made back in 1973 would not be the same decision that was decided upon today if you relooked at the issue."

Her bill cites abolition, the civil rights movement and women's suffrage as justification for establishing the human rights of a fetus. Alabama is one of more than two dozen states seeking to restrict abortion rights this year, testing federal legal precedent that prevents states from banning abortion before the point at which a fetus could survive outside the womb.

Alabama Pro-Life Coalition President Eric Johnston says there's a reason there's so much activity now. "The dynamic has changed," Johnston says. "The judges have changed, a lot of changes over that time, and so I think we're at the point where we need to take a bigger and a bolder step." The bold move to outlaw nearly all abortions is drawing protests from abortion-rights advocates.

A coalition called Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity demonstrated outside the Alabama State House last month.

"This bill is an awful piece of grandstanding," said Amanda Reyes of Tuscaloosa, Ala. She is president of the Yellowhammer Fund, a group that helps women pay for abortions. "If you make abortion illegal somewhere that doesn't mean that abortion goes away," says Reyes. "It just becomes more difficult and more dangerous to access."

The bill is expected to win final passage in the Republican-majority Alabama Senate. The ACLU of Alabama says it will sue if the abortion ban becomes law.

Executive Director Randall Marshall says the bill is unconstitutional. "There is simply nothing that Alabama can do to interfere with the right of access to abortion," Marshall says. "That is a federal right and the federal Constitution clearly trumps all state law." With two Trump appointees now on the U.S. Supreme Court, anti-abortion forces are optimistic that judicial interpretation could be reversed.

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The Alabama House has passed a bill that would make it a crime for doctors to perform abortions at any stage of a pregnancy, unless the woman's life is threatened. The legislation is part of a broader anti-abortion strategy to prompt the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider the right to abortion. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Republican State Representative Terri Collins defended her Human Life Protection Act during, at times, contentious debate in the Alabama House yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERRI COLLINS: This bill is focused on that baby that's in the womb that is a person. That baby, I believe, would choose life.

ELLIOTT: Democratic lawmakers walked out in protest before the final 74-3 vote. During debate, they questioned the motive for an abortion ban in a state that's refused to expand Medicaid. Representative Merika Coleman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERIKA COLEMAN: Well, I do support life, but there are some people that just support birth. They don't support life because after a child is actually born, there are some things that need to happen. We need to make sure that that child has adequate health care.

ELLIOTT: Other states, including neighboring Georgia and Mississippi, have passed laws that prohibit abortion once a fetal heartbeat can be detected. But Collins says Alabama's ban would apply even earlier.

COLLINS: When a woman is pregnant, an abortion is no longer legal.

ELLIOTT: The bill criminalizes abortion, meaning doctors would face felony jail time up to 99 years if convicted. The only exceptions are for a serious health risk to the pregnant woman or a lethal anomaly of the fetus. There are no exceptions for cases of rape or incest. A woman would not be held criminally liable for having an abortion.

Collins says the bill follows a constitutional amendment approved by Alabama voters last year that recognizes what it calls the rights of unborn children in direct defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision that protects a woman's right to abortion.

COLLINS: This bill is simply about Roe v. Wade - that the decision that was made back in 1973 would not be the same decision that was decided upon today if you relooked at the issue.

ELLIOTT: Her bill cites abolition, the civil rights movement and women's suffrage as justification for establishing the human rights of a fetus. Alabama is one of more than two dozen states seeking to restrict abortion rights this year, testing federal legal precedent. Alabama Pro-Life Coalition President Eric Johnston says there's a reason there's so much activity right now.

ERIC JOHNSTON: The dynamic has changed. You know, the judges have changed. A lot of changes over that time. So I think we're at the point where we need to take a bigger and a bolder step.

ELLIOTT: By outlawing nearly all abortions. The move is drawing protests from abortion rights advocates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) The people are the future, the past and the present.

ELLIOTT: A coalition called URGE - Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity - demonstrated outside the Alabama State House last month.

AMANDA REYES: This bill is an awful piece of grandstanding.

ELLIOTT: Amanda Reyes of Tuscaloosa is president of the Yellowhammer Fund, a group that helps women pay for abortions.

REYES: If you make abortion illegal somewhere, that doesn't mean that abortion goes away. It just becomes more difficult and more dangerous to access.

ELLIOTT: The ACLU of Alabama says it will sue if the abortion ban becomes law. It's expected to win final passage in the Republican-majority Alabama Senate. ACLU Executive Director Randall Marshall says the bill is unconstitutional.

RANDALL MARSHALL: There is simply nothing that Alabama can do to interfere with the right of access to abortion because that is a federal right. And the federal Constitution clearly trumps all state law.

ELLIOTT: With two Trump appointees now on the U.S. Supreme Court, anti-abortion forces are optimistic that judicial interpretation could be reversed. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Montgomery. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.