Nurse Katie Knoblock comforts a patient after an abortion procedure at a clinic on Aug. 7, 2018, in Phoenix. Alabama voted down an amendment to its new abortion bill that would have provided exemptoins in cases of incest and rape. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Legal battle heats up as more states test strict abortion bans

WASHINGTON — Advocates are preparing for a legal battle after Alabama passed the strictest abortion bill in the country late Tuesday, part of a growing national push by abortion opponents to test whether the courts will curb constitutional protections for the procedure.

Alabama’s move, which would essentially ban abortion in most cases, could open the door to restrictions in other states — even though they will all likely be challenged in court. Other states are already pursuing and defending laws to ban abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.

“This is not just about Alabama. We are seeing these extreme bills being introduced across the country,” said Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen in a call with reporters Wednesday. “These extreme bans banning abortions at six weeks or earlier, before women even know we’re pregnant, is happening in 16 states.”

Alabama’s bill, which Wen called the most extreme abortion ban since the landmark Roe v. Wade case guaranteed a national right to abortion in 1973, would go farther than the approach taken in many other red states. The legislation would ban abortion at any stage of pregnancy, unless needed to save the life of the woman, and has no exceptions for rape or incest. Abortion providers who violate these terms could be charged with a felony and punished for up to 99 years in prison.

“Doctors would be scared to provide needed medical treatment because we’d be worried that by doing what’s needed for our patients we could go to prison for a lifetime,” said Wen, who is also a trained emergency room physician.

Alabamians already face many barriers to abortion, including a 48-hour waiting period and mandated counseling. Half of the patients in Alabama and two other states served by Planned Parenthood Southeast travel over 100 miles to reach a clinic, said Staci Fox, who heads the group’s advocacy arm.

The American Civil Liberties Union has already signaled it will challenge the Alabama bill in court if Republican Gov. Kay Ivey, who opposes abortion, signs it.

The ACLU and Planned Parenthood also filed suit Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio over Ohio’s six-week abortion law.

This year, four states have already passed bans after six weeks of pregnancy, and Missouri is expected to pass its own ban by Friday when the legislative session ends. The state legislature there is considering an omnibus abortion bill that would combine a number of restrictions.

Elizabeth Watson, a staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, on a separate press call, called the Ohio bill part of the growing “concerted national effort to limit abortion.”

“Let this be a warning to the anti-abortion politicians in Ohio and across the country: if you attack our right to abortion, we will always be here to defend it,” said Watson.

Ohio legislators, whose previous Republican governor vetoed two versions of abortion bans after six weeks, moved quickly on approving restrictions under its new, more conservative governor Mike DeWine.

Restrictions on funding for abortion in public programs are common, but the legislature is currently considering a bill that would ban even private insurance coverage of abortion — which, if passed, could pave a steeper path for women seeking the procedure in Ohio. Doctors and advocacy groups criticized the bill last week for including language that would require the re-implantation of ectopic pregnancies that occur when a fertilized egg is attached outside of the uterus — which is not a medically recognized procedure.

“What was considered too extreme for state politicians just a few years ago is becoming law in a few states,” said Wen.

Anti-abortion groups see an opening for further policies like Alabama’s bill and are ready to fight in the courts with the goal of winning a Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.

The Supreme Court on Monday overturned, 5-4, an unrelated 40-year-old precedent over the ability of individuals to sue a state in another state court, which could hint that the high court is more open to reviewing rulings decided decades ago like Roe.

Susan B. Anthony List is among the many anti-abortion groups hoping for a challenge to rise to the Supreme Court. The group pushed for the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh last year after swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement.

“It is clearer than ever that Roe is far from being settled law in the eyes and hearts of the American people, and this is increasingly reflected in state legislatures. The American people want a fresh debate and a new direction, achieved by consensus and built on love for both mothers and babies,” said SBA List’s Marjorie Dannenfelser in a statement. “The time is coming for the Supreme Court to let that debate go forward.”

Catherine Glenn Foster, the president and CEO of American United for Life, a legal advocacy group that opposes abortion, said Alabama has “created the opportunity to implement new, comprehensive policies to ensure the most life-affirming outcomes for both the mother and the child throughout life.”

Next week, U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi will hear oral arguments in a hearing over whether to grant a preliminary injunction over the state’s six-week abortion ban.

The Center for Reproductive Rights filed suit on behalf of the state’s only abortion provider — Jackson Women’s Health Organization — after the legislation was enacted in March. The ban is slated to take effect in July.

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