Tuscaloosa Abortion Clinic Can Reopen, Federal Court Rules

A ruling Thursday temporarily blocks the state from enforcing TRAP provisions against the sole provider in the area.

A ruling Thursday temporarily blocks the state from enforcing TRAP provisions against the sole provider in the area. Shutterstock

A federal judge Thursday temporarily blocked an Alabama law that had forced one of the last remaining abortion clinics in the state, the West Alabama Women’s Center in Tuscaloosa, to be closed since January.

The ruling came in the ongoing battle over targeted regulations of abortion providers (TRAP) laws in the state. In 2007, the Alabama State Board of Health issued the requirement for abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a local hospital or to contract with a local covering physician with such privileges. In 2013, Alabama enacted HB 57, which would have replaced this regulation by requiring that every physician performing abortions have admitting privileges at a local hospital, thus eliminating the alternative covering-physician arrangement.

Before HB 57 went into effect, the three clinics in the state relying on covering physicians brought a lawsuit challenging the admitting privileges requirement but not the covering physician requirement. A federal court found the requirement unconstitutional as it applied to those three clinics.

But that order did not apply to the West Alabama Women’s Center. Until December 2014, the center had no trouble complying with the admitting privileges requirement because its doctor, Louis Payne, had admitting privileges at an area hospital. But Dr. Payne retired in December 2014, and, although the center has found a replacement doctor, he does not have staff privileges at the local hospital. Nor has the center been able to find a covering physician—that is, a doctor who has local admitting privileges and who is willing to contract with the clinic.

Because the center cannot meet either requirement of the regulation, it has been closed since January 2015.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued in July 2015 on the center’s behalf, arguing the provision was unconstitutional and requesting the court block it so the clinic can reopen. Thursday’s order grants that request. There is no time limit for the order; it will remain in place as the trial continues.

“[T]his court should not stand by to allow a woman’s fundamental right to obtain an abortion to be subverted” by a “confluence of violence and hostility to abortions,” Judge Myron H. Thompson wrote.

“The court’s decision preserves the health and safety of women throughout Alabama,” said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, staff attorney in the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, in a statement. “The decision recognizes this regulation is completely unnecessary and that closing one of the last remaining abortion clinics in the state would have prevented women from receiving essential and high quality care.”

Judge Thompson is the same judge that previously ruled the admitting privileges requirement of the statute unconstitutional.

“With legal abortion under attack in Alabama, we are pleased with the court’s concern for the health and safety of women,” said Susan Watson, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama in a statement following the decision. “This order restores the ability of West Alabama Women’s Center to provide much needed services.”