New Alabama Law Will Treat Abortion Clinics like Sex Offenders

A proposed bill would make it illegal to operate an abortion clinic within 2,000 feet of a school—yet another law that advocates say is chipping away at women's reproductive health care access.

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May 11 2016, 5:00pm

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In Alabama, a state with an impregnable Republican supermajority intent on rolling back reproductive rights, it's become increasingly difficult—if not nearly impossible—for a woman to obtain an abortion.

Last week, in the final hours of Alabama's legislative session, conservative representatives railroaded two anti-abortion bills through the legislature. One bill would ban a procedure known as dilation and evacuation (D&E)—the safest and most common way to terminate a second-trimester pregnancy. Since 2014, 15 states have proposed or enacted restrictions on so-called "dismemberment abortions, "an incendiary term for the procedure favored by radical anti-abortion activists.

And then there's Senate Bill 205. This proposal aims to prevent the Department of Public Health from issuing or renewing clinic licenses within 2,000 feet of public elementary or middle schools—supposedly for the safety of students. Since Alabama law prohibits registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of public schools, SB 205 effectively regulates abortion clinics like sex offenders. "We can put a restriction on whether a liquor store opens up across the street and make sure pedophiles stay away from schools," State Senator Paul Sanford, the bill's sponsor, told the Times Daily. "I just think having an abortion clinic that close to elementary-age school children that actually have to walk on the sidewalk past it is not the best thing."

Alabama's scandal-plagued Republican governor, Robert Bentley, is expected to sign both bills into law; meanwhile, the ACLU of Alabama is already preparing to challenge it in court.

Two of the state's five abortion clinics—in Tuscaloosa and Huntsville—are in jeopardy, as both are located within 2,000 feet of a school. They happen to be the two busiest clinics in the state: according to the Alabama Department of Public Health, they performed 72 percent of the 8,080 abortions in 2014. Alabama's Women's Center for Reproductive Alternatives in Huntsville, a relatively progressive pocket in the northern part of the state, appears to be the primary target of conservative ire.

Since 2001, Dalton Johnson has owned and operated Alabama's Women's Center, the only clinic in the state that employs an OB-GYN with admitting privileges at a local hospital. In 2014, Johnson moved the clinic to its current location in a surgical center—near the Huntsville Hospital emergency room—in order to comply with HB 57, the Women's Health and Safety Act, which mandates that Alabama abortion providers must have admitting privileges, a requirement pro-choice advocates say is medically unnecessary. (Admitting privileges are one issue at the center of the pending Supreme Court case, Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, which challenges the constitutionality of clinics being forced to meet requirements of ambulatory surgical centers. While Whole Woman's Health resulted from a Texas law, the Supreme Court's ruling this summer could affect clinics in Alabama and other states.)

It's absolutely oppressive to be a woman in Alabama.

When I asked Johnson if there is any validity to the argument about protecting children—even safeguarding them from rabid anti-abortion protestors—he scoffed. "It has nothing to do with children or anything like that," he said. "If that were the case, people wouldn't bring their own children to protest, which they do on a regular basis. It is nothing but reducing access to women's healthcare and attacking a woman's right to choose."

Susan Watson, the Executive Director of the ACLU of Alabama, agreed. She characterized SB 363 and SB 205 as part of a "constant nibbling around the edges of the law" and believes these conservative attacks are about "stopping access to reproductive freedom from every angle they can think of." Watson lived in the Florida Panhandle before relocating to Alabama. "I have to say we did not have the onslaught there that we have here," she reflected. "It's absolutely oppressive to be a woman in Alabama. I don't know how many times I've said during this past legislative session, 'I don't know why I live here.' It's just so oppressive."

Alabama is a particularly egregious example of a disturbing national trend in which conservatives enact law after law, again and again, with the sole purpose of making it impossible for women to access an abortion. Since 2010, politicians have passed nearly 300 new restrictions on abortion access—in 2015 alone, there were 57 constraints.

In 1975, Watson was an operating room nurse before abortions were moved to outpatient facilities. I asked her to compare the political climate—is it worse now? "Oh, I actually think it's a lot worse now, but maybe it's because it's what I do all the time," she said. "Now it's difficult and there is so much stigma connected to it. It's just difficult to be a woman in Alabama and probably throughout the South—but especially so here."