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Federal Court Hears Arguments in Alabama Admitting Privileges Challenge

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A federal court is considering whether to permanently block the state's requirement that doctors who perform abortions must have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

Last week a federal court heard arguments over the State of Alabama’s admitting privileges law, which opponents claim will close at least three abortion clinics in the state and severely restrict reproductive health-care access for low-income women in the state.

HB 57 imposes a host of new regulations on abortion clinics in Alabama, including requiring every physician who performs abortions in the state to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. It also requires abortion clinics to meet the same building requirements as ambulatory surgical centers. In June 2013, a federal court temporarily blocked the admitting privileges portion of the law from taking effect after reproductive rights advocates sued, arguing that part of the law was unconstitutional. On Friday, the court considered summary judgment arguments to either make that temporary order permanent or to lift the order and allow the law to take effect.

Planned Parenthood Southeast and Reproductive Health Services, two of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, say that if the law goes into effect, clinics in Mobile, Montgomery, and Birmingham will be forced to close. That’s because doctors at those clinics either live out of town and travel to those cities to provide care, or they do not meet the patient volume requirements that hospitals set to determine admitting privileges. Should those clinics close, the plaintiffs argue, patients needing abortion care will be forced to drive hundreds of miles to the two remaining clinics in the state, one in Hunstville and the other in Tuscaloosa. Meanwhile, attorneys for the state argue that the requirements are necessary to protect patient safety.

Federal courts have blocked similar laws in Wisconsin and Mississippi, while state courts have blocked similar measures in North Dakota and Kansas. Texas’ admitting privilege law remains in effect while a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality moves forward.

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The Alabama district court is expected to rule on the requests for summary judgment before the temporary restraining order in set to expire, on March 24. Opponents did not challenge the ambulatory surgical center requirements.

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