Alabama Governor Signs Abortion Ban Into Law

May 15, 2019
Originally published on May 19, 2019 3:41 pm

Updated at 6:23 p.m. ET Wednesday

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed a controversial bill that bans nearly all abortions into law Wednesday evening.

It's considered the most restrictive abortion law in the United States. The law makes it a crime for doctors to perform abortions at any stage of a pregnancy, unless a woman's life is threatened or there is a lethal fetal anomaly.

Under the new law, doctors in the state face felony jail time up to 99 years if convicted. But a woman would not be held criminally liable for having an abortion.

The law does not take effect for several months.

The Alabama Senate passed the bill Tuesday evening. The state House had already overwhelmingly approved the legislation. It's part of a broader anti-abortion strategy to prompt the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider the right to abortion.

Laura Stiller of Montgomery protests outside the Alabama State House as the Senate debates an abortion ban. Stiller calls the legislation political and an "affront to women's rights."
Debbie Elliott / NPR

There are no exceptions for cases of rape or incest, and that was a sticking point when the Alabama Senate first tried to debate the measure last Thursday. The Republican-majority chamber adjourned in dramatic fashion when leaders tried to strip a committee amendment that would have added an exception for cases of rape or incest.

Sponsors insist they wanted to limit exceptions because the bill is designed to push the idea that a fetus is a person with rights, in a direct challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision that established a woman's right to abortion.

"Human life has rights, and when someone takes those rights, that's when we as government have to step in," said Republican Clyde Chambliss, the Senate sponsor of the abortion ban.

The amendment has divided Republicans. Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, who presides over the Senate, posted on Twitter that his position is simple — "Abortion is murder." But other Senate leaders have insisted that there be exceptions for rape and incest.

Democrats didn't have the votes to stop the bill but tried to slow down proceedings during the debate.

Democratic Sen. Vivian Davis Figures questioned why supporters would not want victims of rape or incest to have an exception for a horrific act.

"To take that choice away from that person who had such a traumatic act committed against them, to be left with the residue of that person if you will, to have to bring that child into this world and be reminded of it every single day," Figures said.

The ACLU of Alabama promised to "fight" the new law after it was signed Wednesday evening.

"This bill will not take effect anytime in the near future, and abortion will remain a safe, legal medical procedure at all clinics in Alabama," the organization tweeted Tuesday night, along with a map showing clinic locations in the state.

"Abortion is still legal in all 50 states," the ACLU's national organization wrote. "It's true that states have passed laws trying to make abortion a crime, but we will sue in court to make sure none of those laws ever go into effect."

Chipping away at abortion rights

In recent years, conservative states have passed laws that have chipped away at the right to abortion, with stricter regulations including time limits, waiting periods and medical requirements on doctors and clinics. This year state lawmakers are going even further now that there's a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The strategy here is that we will win," says Alabama Pro-Life Coalition President Eric Johnston, who helped craft the Alabama abortion ban.

"There are a lot of factors and the main one is two new judges that may give the ability to have Roe reviewed," Johnston said. "And Justice Ginsburg — no one knows about her health."

So states are pushing the envelope. Several, including Alabama's neighbors Georgia and Mississippi, have passed laws that prohibit abortion once heartbeat activity can be detected. But the drafters of the Alabama law think by having no threshold other than if a woman is pregnant, their law might be the one ripe for Supreme Court review.

The National Organization for Women denounced the ban's passage.

"This unconstitutional measure would send women in the state back to the dark days of policymakers having control over their bodies, health and lives," the organization said in a statement. "NOW firmly believes that women have the constitutional right to safe, legal, affordable and accessible abortion care and we strongly oppose this bill and the other egregious pieces of legislation that extremist lawmakers are trying to pass in what they claim is an attempt to force the Supreme Court to overturn Roe."

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Alabama is poised to put into place one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country. Alabama's state Senate passed the bill last night. It prohibits nearly all abortions at every stage of pregnancy. The only exception to the ban is if the mother's life is at serious risk or what the bill calls a fetal anomaly. To say this bill is controversial would be an understatement. NPR's national correspondent Debbie Elliott is in Alabama. She joined us earlier.

Good morning, Debbie.


KING: So if passed, this would be one of the most restrictive laws in the country. What does it say exactly?

ELLIOTT: Well, it criminalizes abortion. This, if it becomes law, would make it a felony for doctors to perform an abortion, and they could face up to 99 years in prison if they're convicted. Women, however, would not be held criminally liable for having an abortion. The no-rape/incest exception was a sticking point in last night's Senate debate. And some Republicans even broke with the party vote in order to protect victims of rape and incest. Here's Senator Cam Ward.


CAM WARD: Well, I just - I've heard testimony from both a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old who were both raped incestually (ph) by a relative. And I have - a father of daughters, and it just gives me pause. It gives me a lot of pause hearing those stories, hearing what they went through not to have those exceptions on there. And I know there's a legal argument otherwise, but I just personally believe that there should be those exceptions.

ELLIOTT: Now, that legal argument otherwise - you know, sponsors say they've wanted this very clean bill with no amendments because they're trying to establish legal human rights for a fetus. Now, this is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's landmark ruling that established a woman's right to abortion. That was in 1973.

KING: So their agenda is pretty clear. Now, this bill in Alabama easily passed the state legislature. It's now up to Governor Kay Ivey to sign it. Is there any chance that she just won't sign it?

ELLIOTT: Doubtful - she says she's going to review it. She's not, you know, said what she's going to do yet. But she's very likely to sign it. She's a conservative politician. She has taken anti-abortion positions in the past. And even sponsors of the legislation say they expect her support. So, you know, even during the debate, Democrats sort of conceded that this was a done deal. They tried to fight the bill. They don't have the votes with the Republican supermajority in control of the Alabama Legislature. But they certainly railed against this bill and slowed things down a little bit.

One of only a handful of women senators in the chamber, Democratic Senator Linda Coleman-Madison, you know, called out Republicans for what she said was kind of - they advocate for a small government on one hand, yet they're supporting this bill. And I'll quote her now. She said, you know, now you're in my womb. I want you out. It was a very dramatic moment.

KING: Debbie, other states have recently also passed restrictive abortion laws - maybe not as restrictive as Alabama's - but Georgia, Mississippi, Ohio. Is this part of a coordinated nationwide effort?

ELLIOTT: Yeah, you're seeing a wave of these laws, particularly in the South and Midwest - laws, for example, that ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Courts have already found some of those unconstitutional. Now Alabama's legislation, as you say, even more restrictive - certainly up for a challenge. The ACLU of Alabama has put the state on notice that it will sue. Republican State Senator Clyde Chambliss, who sponsored the bill, says that's the whole point.


CLYDE CHAMBLISS: What this bill is designed to do is to go to the Supreme Court and challenge that particular precedence that said, in 1973, that abortion is legal, on demand, essentially any time, anywhere, for any reason.

ELLIOTT: Anti-abortion groups say they believe the makeup of the Supreme Court now, with two of President Trump's appointees, makes this the right time to take on Roe.

KING: NPR's national correspondent Debbie Elliott.

Debbie, thanks so much.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.