News Law and Policy

Lawsuit Filed Challenging Alabama TRAP Law

Jessica Mason Pieklo

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.

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.”

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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.

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

News Law and Policy

Court Blocks North Carolina’s ‘Discriminatory’ Voter ID Law

Imani Gandy

“[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision," Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court, describing the North Carolina GOP's voter ID law.

A unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down North Carolina’s elections law, holding that the Republican-held legislature had enacted the law with discriminatory intent to burden Black voters and that it therefore violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The ruling marks the latest defeat of voter ID laws passed by GOP-majority legislatures across the country.

“We can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent,” Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court.

HB 589 required in-person voters to show certain types of photo ID beginning in 2016, and either curtailed or reduced registration and voting access tools that Black voters disproportionately used, including an early voting period. Black voters also disproportionately lack photo IDs.

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Republicans claimed that the law was intended to protect against voter fraud, which has proven exceedingly rare in Republican-led investigations. But voting rights advocates argue that the law was intended to disenfranchise Black and Latino voters.

The ruling marks a dramatic reversal of fortune for the U.S. Justice Department, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters, which had asked the Fourth Circuit to review a lower court ruling against them.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder in April ruled that plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate that the law hindered Black voters’ ability to exercise political power.

The Fourth Circuit disagreed.

“In holding that the legislature did not enact the challenged provisions with discriminatory intent, the court seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees,” Motz wrote. “This failure of perspective led the court to ignore critical facts bearing on legislative intent, including the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina.”

The Fourth Circuit noted that the Republican-dominated legislature passed the law in 2013, immediately following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby v. Holder, which struck a key provision in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 4 is the coverage formula used to determine which states must get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice or the District Court for the District of Columbia before making any changes to election laws.

The day after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Shelby, the Republican chairman of the Senate Rules Committee announced the North Carolina legislature’s intention to enact an “omnibus” election law, the appeals court noted. Before enacting the law, however, the Republican-dominated legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices.

After receipt of the race data, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration, all of which disproportionately burdened Black voters.

“In response to claims that intentional racial discrimination animated its actions, the State offered only meager justifications,” Motz continued. “[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The ruling comes a day after the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and one of the primary organizers of Moral Mondays, gave a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention that brought convention goers to their feet.

During a protest on the first day of the trial, Barber told a crowd of about 3,500 people, “this is our Selma.”