An Alabama house committee held hearings Wednesday on anti-choice bills that would restrict access to reproductive health care, with one proposal threatening to outlaw abortion before many women know they’re pregnant.
Susan Watson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, told lawmakers during the House Health Committee hearings that the bills are “bad for Alabama,” and that if they become law, the state will be on the hook for the high cost of litigation if they face legal challenges.
Representatives from the Alabama Citizens for Life and Alabama Pro-Life Coalition as well as other anti-choice activists testified in favor of the bills.
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If a physician performs an abortions after the detection of a heartbeat, they could be charged with a class C felony, which carries a penalty of up to ten years in prison and a $15,000 fine.
“When I first heard about it, I thought if the end of life is determined when the heartbeat stops, then why not use it to determine when life begins?” Collins said during the hearing, reported the Montgomery Advertiser.
If the bill becomes law, it could effectively ban abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, before a woman may even know she is pregnant.
There were 8,485 abortions reported in Alabama during 2013, and 3,628 of those took place after six weeks’ gestation, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.
Reproductive rights advocates argued that the legislation is unconstitutional because it bans abortion before viability. “Just because there is a heartbeat doesn’t mean there is viability or life,” clinic escort Meg Tilden said, reported the Montgomery Advertiser.
The bill includes an exception if death or substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman is likely if an abortion is not performed. It doesn’t include any exceptions for psychological or emotional conditions or cases of rape or incest.
Alabama Reproductive Rights Advocates said in a statement that the bill is an attempt to eradicate a woman’s constitutional right to obtain a safe, legal abortion across the state.
“These attempts have nothing to do with women’s health and everything to do with interfering with women’s reproductive health care choices, as most women are not even aware they are pregnant before a heartbeat might be detected,” the statement said.
Similar legislation was passed last year by the GOP-dominated house, but did not come up for a vote in the senate. Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) said at the time that the state could not afford the cost of likely litigation. Similar heartbeat legislation in Arkansas and North Dakota has been blocked by federal courts.
“My thought process is let’s see what happens there, and see if they’re successful before we get enjoined, and spend dollars that we actually don’t have right now as a state,” said Marsh, reported the Montgomery Advertiser.
HB 527, sponsored by Rep. Ed Henry (R-Hartselle), would empower the Alabama Department of Public Health to reject applications or refuse to renew a health center license for facilities providing abortion or reproductive health-care services that are located within 2,000 feet of a public school.
The legislation targets the Alabama Women’s Center, the only clinic in the state providing abortion services.
Henry said he had been asked by several Alabama anti-choice groups to file the bill, and that the legislation is necessary to protect school children from protests at abortion clinics that are often staged by the very same anti-choice activists who advocated for HB 527.
“To me, the whole atmosphere around abortion clinics is very unsettling, with protesters on both sides, and to me not something we need to have the children of Alabama subjected to,” Henry told the Times Daily. “We regulate how close liquor stores can be to schools and churches.”
Supporters of the bill during the hearing cited anti-choice protests that occur near abortion clinics as justification for the legislation.
“I have seen the signs that are held up with pictures of aborted fetuses,” Madison County Assistant District Attorney Bob Becher told the committee members, according to the Birmingham News. “I have seen the confrontations.”
Becher went on to say that he supports the legislation “so they can have their abortion clinic someplace else.” However, the Alabama Women’s Center opened its current location because it was forced to relocate after lawmakers passed a law requiring clinics that provide abortion services to meet the building standards of ambulatory surgical centers.
Several anti-choice activists filed a lawsuit in October in an attempt block the clinic from operating in its current location, claiming that clinic violated zoning ordinances. A judge dismissed suit in November, ruling that the group lacked the standing to bring the suit.
Supporters of the legislation also invoked violent actions taken by radical anti-choice activists against abortion providers as justification for the bill.
Christopher Horn, a former candidate for the state legislature, said that abortion clinics should not be located near schools because they have been the locations of bombings and shootings.
“I don’t want to wake and neither do any of you to a report that a tragedy has happened at that location,” said Horn, reported the Montgomery Advertiser.
Supporters even quoted from a ruling by U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson that struck down a state law requiring physicians that provide abortion care have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Thompson wrote that there is a “a history of severe violence against abortion providers in Alabama and the surrounding region,” and clinics in the state exist in a “climate of extreme hostility to the practice of abortion.”
A report published this year found that abortion clinics nationwide face significant threats of harassment, intimidation, and violence, and that threats of violence against abortion providers have doubled since 2010.
HB 491, sponsored by Rep. Arnold Mooney (R-Birmingham), would allow health-care professionals to refuse to participate in care that violates their conscience, ethical, or religious convictions. This could include performing abortions, sterilization, human cloning, and human embryonic stem cell research.
Nikema Williams, vice president for Public Policy at Planned Parenthood Southeast, said that the legislation would legalize discrimination and have a detrimental effect on women’s health care.
“Politicians should have absolutely no role in our personal medical decisions,” Williams said in a statement. “Only a woman and her doctor can make the determination about what’s best for her. HB 491 is wrong for Alabama and wrong for women.”
The committee did not take votes on any of the three bills Wednesday, but will likely vote next week on whether to send the bills to the full house.
Republicans dominate the state legislature, holding a 72-33 majority in the house and a 26-8 senate majority. Any bill passed by lawmakers restricting reproductive rights would likely be signed into law by Gov. Robert Bentley (R).