U.S. Court Rejects Alabama Abortion Restrictions, Cites Harassment Providers Face
Dalton Johnson is a hunted man – literally. He has security alarms and cameras at his home and office; he has a permit to carry a gun; he regularly changes his routines; he even shops in a grocery store across town from where he lives.
But Johnson isn’t a spy, a wanted man or even an undercover law enforcement officer. He’s the administrator of the Alabama Women’s Center – a clinic that performs abortions and offers birth control, pap smears and STD testing at a lower cost to help lower income women. He’s not alone – or paranoid – for taking these precautions: the physicians and other clinic staff must do the same.
Johnson’s problems don’t begin or end with a few anti-abortion zealots: he’s been forced to contend with the work of a number of anti-abortion Republicans in the Alabama state legislature and the newer, nationwide initiative called Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (Trap) laws. Under the pretense of “helping women”, these laws are designed to close clinics that perform abortions by putting unnecessary restrictions on women’s health facilities and the physicians who work there.
But on Monday in Alabama – thanks to US Judge Myron Thompson – Johnson got one small reprieve: the law that required abortion doctors to have hospital admitting privileges at local hospitals was struck down and declared unconstitutional.
In Thompson’s opinion, he wrote:
The court is convinced that, if this requirement would not, in the face of all the evidence in the record, constitute an impermissible undue burden, then almost no regulation, short of those imposing an outright prohibition on abortion, would.
He was quite right.
It is very difficult for physicians in Alabama that perform abortions to get hospital privileges because hospitals are wary of making themselves a target of the state’s notoriously violent protestors. Most that do provide abortions in the state live outside of it and fly in because of the danger to themselves and their families – which then disqualifies them from obtaining local privileges. As Thompson noted, the law would have thus closed three of the state’s five clinics.
Thompson’s decision specifically took into account the history of violence against clinics in Alabama, which includes murder, assault, bombings and destruction of property. It’s violence that I’ve experience first-hand since starting a volunteer program at our local clinic in Huntsville in September 2010. We have been hit, pushed, shoved, called vile names, preached at through a bull horn and more – all in the name of “compassionate sidewalk counseling”. (Fortunately, unlike many other cities, the Huntsville Police Department, the FBI and city officials have been very responsive and fair in responding to the treatment of our volunteers, which we’ve documented through video, photography and daily written accounts.)
But having the support of local police and law enforcement paled in comparison to having the courts acknowledge our efforts when overturning one of the laws we’d fought to keep from passing.
The court finds that the protests at the Huntsville private practices go beyond the run-of-the-mill political protests prompted by an issue as morally and politically charged as abortion. The protesters in Huntsville were not targeting abortion patients and trying to dissuade them from going through with the procedure. Instead, they were approaching women who sought to carry their pregnancies to term. Rather than attempting to change general public perceptions on the issue of abortions or dissuade women from obtaining abortions, the court must infer that these protesters sought to threaten economic destruction for any doctor who enabled the provision of abortion within the city. They succeeded twice in ending a doctor’s obstetric practice.
This, too, I’ve seen for myself: Dr Yashica Robinson, a part-time physician at the Huntsville clinic, has been harassed by anti-abortion protestors outside her private OB-GYN office for months, though no abortions are performed at that clinic. The anti-abortion activists are simply attempting to intimidate her and her patients and destroy her business.
As it is, the Huntsville clinic is currently closed because of another part of the Trap legislation: restrictive ambulatory care standards that no other similar inpatient medical offices are required to meet. The original location could not meet the new standards, so Dalton Johnson actually purchased the building in which Dr Robinson’s office is house, because it would need fewer modifications to meet the standards. (But James Henderson, an anti-abortion leader in Huntsville, and some of his colleagues hired a group of attorneys from California in yet another attempt to block the clinic from reopening. )
It’s long been clear that the ultra-right wing politicians voted into office in Alabama are determined to spend more time regulating women’s bodies than creating much-needed jobs – except, maybe, for out-of-state lawyers, like the ones working on Henderson’s behalf. And for all their talk of fiscal responsibility, I’m sure the state, with the backing of those legislators, will appeal this case – despite having spent more than $140,000 on “expert” witnesses alone in this case.
But that’s hardly the only example of their hypocrisy, as Judge Thompson noted:
[The] court poses the hypothetical that suppose, for the public weal, the federal or state government were to implement a new restriction on who may sell firearms and ammunition and on the procedure they must employ in selling such goods and that, further, only two vendors in the State of Alabama were capable of complying with the restriction: one in Huntsville and one in Tuscaloosa. The defenders of this law would be called upon to do a heck of a lot of explaining – and rightly so in the face of an effect so severe.
Perhaps the gun parallel Thompson drew will help make these untenable infringement on women’s rights more relatable to some Alabama residents. But even if it doesn’t, the statewide organization which I helped start – the Alabama Reproductive Rights Advocates – won’t back down. We will continue to be a voice for choice in the state legislature, to protect clinics and the women wishing to use their many services, to pursue legal action against anti-abortion zealots and to help offset expenses for women wishing to terminate a pregnancy. We’re glad this time, at least,the courts had our back.