The Alabama house passed legislation Tuesday that would prohibit clinics offering abortion care from being located near schools, charging that children should be protected from anti-choice protests.
Lawmakers, after a two-hour floor debate, passed the bill with a 79-15 vote. Republicans hold a 72-33 house majority.
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 located within 2,000 feet of a public school.
The anti-choice measure targets the Alabama Women’s Center for Reproductive Alternatives Services, one of five clinics in the state providing abortion care and a longtime subject of the state GOP’s anti-choice regulatory proposals.
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The Alabama Women’s Center is located across the street from Edward H. White Middle School. The clinic recently moved to the location after being forced to relocate to comply with the so-called Women’s Health and Safety Act, passed by Republicans in 2013.
The move cost $550,000, according to clinic administrator Dalton Johnson.
Henry said the intent of the legislation was to protect school children against protests from “both sides,” along with displays of graphic signs outside the clinics.
“The kids are being exposed to an element of life that they really don’t need to be exposed to at 4 or 5 or 6 years old,” Henry said, reported the Associated Press. “It’s a volatile atmosphere that our children shouldn’t be subjected to.”
There are no students attending White Middle School, which is vacant and undergoing renovations. The school will open in the fall as a magnet school, serving students in prekindergarten through eighth grade.
Rep. Patricia Todd (D-Birmingham) countered that if protests outside abortion clinics are the problem, then lawmakers should pass legislation restricting the protesters. “Let’s get real here. Who’s the problem? It’s not the clinic. Your bill is directed at the wrong entity,” Todd said, reported the Associated Press.
Henry said he would oppose the regulation of protests. “We cannot infringe their First Amendment rights,” he said, reported the Montgomery Advertiser.
Rep. Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa) questioned whether the 2,000-foot restriction was an arbitrary requirement or based on any evidence. Henry replied that he did not know how the distance requirement was determined.
Henry had previously told the Times Daily that the distance was based on the state’s sex offender laws. “We were advised counsel that a good approach was to use the same standard of keeping sex offenders from public schools, which is 2,000 feet,” he added. “That is what the bill is based on.”
Registered adult sex offenders are prohibited from living within 2,000 feet of a school or child-care facility, under Alabama state law.
The bill originally applied to any reproductive health clinic, but house lawmakers approved an amendment addressing concerns that the legislation may have been too broad and could have been applied to any OB-GYN office or fertility clinic.
Legislators rejected another amendment that would have grandfathered in the Alabama Women’s Center.
James Henderson, the former head of the Christian Coalition of Alabama, told the Montgomery Press-Register his group drafted the legislation with the purpose of forcing the Alabama Women’s Center to close. Henderson resigned as executive director of the organization to lobby the state’s dominant Republican majority to pass anti-choice legislation.
Todd criticized Republican lawmakers for not supporting pregnancy prevention programs or other measures to help young mothers and families after a pregnancy is carried to term. “Your whole focus is this nine-month period, and then boom, you don’t care,” Todd said, reported the Mobile Press-Register.
The Alabama Reproductive Rights Advocates released a statement opposing the legislation, calling it a targeted attack on women’s health care in the state.
“This bill was brought about out of the frustrations of the anti-abortion protesters in North Alabama who have been attempting to block access by manipulating existing laws unsuccessfully,” the statement said. “These protesters are now seeking to use the Alabama State Legislature as a pawn at the expense of the taxpayers to carry out a personal vendetta. By likening a healthcare facility to a sex offender in the wording of the bill it is clear that the intent is not to make women safer, but to deny access in Huntsville.”
The bill now moves to the senate, where Republicans hold a 26-8 majority. Lawmakers have five days remaining in the legislative session.