Lawsuit Filed Challenging Alabama TRAP Law

Legal representatives from the ACLU and Planned Parenthood filed suit to block an Alabama law designed to make abortion nearly impossible to access in the state.

As is often the case with other efforts to make abortion care more difficult to access, the reasons offered in support of specific TRAP requirements—which are usually marketed under the guise of protecting women’s health—do not stand up to close scrutiny. Mousetrap captured wooden doll via Shutterstock

On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Alabama, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and Planned Parenthood Southeast filed a lawsuit requesting that a federal court block an unconstitutional Alabama targeted regulation of abortion provider (TRAP) law that places medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion providers. If enacted, it would force most of the clinics in the state to stop providing abortions.

HB 57, which is set to take effect July 1, requires every physician who performs an abortion at a clinic in the state to have staff privileges at a local hospital. The law also contains additional requirements for clinics, such as being able to meet ambulatory care standards, but those provisions are not challenged in this lawsuit at this time.

Alabama’s admitting privileges law is similar to a Mississippi law that was blocked by a federal district court earlier this year and part of a national effort by anti-choice activists to regulate abortion providers out of existence.

“This law is part of a coordinated national campaign designed to outlaw abortion, state by state,” Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, staff attorney at the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, said in a statement. “This law insults women’s intelligence by claiming to be about safety, when the true intent is to shut down clinics and prevent a woman from making a real decision about her pregnancy.”

It is clear in statements from legislators that HB 57 was designed to do just that. State Rep. Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn), the Speaker of the Alabama House, said the bill is about “boldly defend[ing] the rights of the unborn.” During the debate over HB 57, state Rep. Terri Collins (R-Decatur) said she was pleased the bill would limit access to safe and legal abortions in Alabama. State Rep. Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) said plainly at a rally that the Alabama legislature would soon be passing bills “to shut down these [abortion] clinics.”

The lawsuit alleges that, unless blocked by the court, the law would force three of the state’s five abortion clinics to stop providing abortions. That would leave only two abortion providers in the state, in Huntsville and Tuscaloosa, with the state’s three most populous cities, Birmingham, Mobile, and Montgomery, left with no providers at all.

“By forcing most of the abortion clinics in the state to stop providing abortions, this law will make it impossible for some women to get this essential care,” Susan Watson, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, said in a statement.

“We are in court to protect a woman’s ability to make her own personal, private health care decisions,” said Staci Fox, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeast. “For over 80 years, Planned Parenthood health centers in Alabama have provided high-quality, nonjudgmental health care to women. Abortion is a deeply personal and often complex decision, but ultimately a decision that a woman should make—politics should not interfere.”

According to the complaint, the bill places an undue burden on Alabama women who have made the personal and constitutionally protected decision to end a pregnancy, and it violates abortion providers’ due process rights protected by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As alleged in the complaint, HB 57 would force Alabama women in Montgomery, Birmingham, and all points south to travel at least 100 miles, and sometimes as far as 200 miles, and under the abortion restrictions already in place, before accessing care. As the plaintiffs detail in the complaint, for some pregnant people in the state, this could prove impossible, and therefore they may lose access to safe, legal abortion care. For other women, the additional travel required to the remaining licensed providers in Tuscaloosa or Huntsville would delay an abortion, driving up the cost and the risk related to the procedure.

The plaintiffs also allege that HB 57’s staff privileges requirement unconstitutionally gives hospitals complete decision-making power over whether abortion providers in Alabama will be able to continue to be able to provide these services, or if they and their staff members will face significant civil and criminal penalties imposed by the law.

Medical experts across the country oppose laws like HB 57, including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which expressly opposes laws or other regulations that require abortion providers to have hospital staff privileges. “Requiring doctors who provide abortions to have staff privileges at a nearby hospital won’t make women safer and, in fact, could jeopardize their health by depriving women in Alabama access to safe, high-quality health care,” explained Anne Davis, an OB-GYN who is the consulting medical director at Physicians for Reproductive Health.

In recent years, opponents of safe and legal abortion have been pushing for hospital staff privileges requirements that apply only to physicians who provide legal abortion as part of a national strategy to limit a woman’s access to abortion. The only remaining health center providing abortions in Mississippi was on the verge of closing because of a similar requirement after a law was passed there in 2012. The Mississippi law was recently enjoined by a federal district court because it would have shut down the state’s only provider of safe, legal abortions. Earlier this year, North Dakota enacted a staff privileges requirement, which could force that state’s only provider of legal abortions to close as well.

“We are confident that the Court will recognize if this law is not blocked, House Bill 57 would unconstitutionally restrict the ability of Alabama women, including victims of rape and incest, to access safe and legal abortions by imposing a medically unnecessary requirement that all physicians who perform abortions have staff privileges at a local hospital,” said Wayne Sabel, a Montgomery attorney representing Planned Parenthood Southeast and Reproductive Health Services.

A hearing date for the injunction has not yet been set.