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Alabama Republicans Push ‘Heartbeat,’ ‘Personhood’ Abortion Bans

Teddy Wilson

So-called heartbeat abortion bans have been repeatedly found to be unconstitutional because they seek to ban the procedure months before the point at which a fetus is viable.

Alabama’s Republican-dominated legislature is once again proposing some of the country’s most radical measures to restrict abortion care.

Republicans have filed a pair of bills that would outlaw abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which would ban the procedure as early as six weeks’ gestation, or before many people even know they are pregnant.

So-called heartbeat abortion bans have been repeatedly found to be unconstitutional because they seek to ban the procedure months before the point at which a fetus is viable.

There were 8,080 abortions reported in Alabama during 2014, and 3,457 (42.7 percent) of those took place after six weeks’ gestation, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

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Mia Raven, legislative director of Alabama Reproductive Rights Advocates, told Rewire that she thinks lawmakers should focus on priorities that benefit all of the state’s residents.

“They need to work on better solutions for Alabama,” Raven said. “All these bills end up debated in courts of law and that cost money, and that is money that the state of Alabama nor its citizens have for these types of bills.”

HB 21, sponsored by Rep. Terri Collins (R-Decatur), would prohibit a physician from performing an abortion on a pregnant person without first determining if the fetus has a detectable heartbeat. If a physician performs an abortion after the detection of a heartbeat, the physician could be charged with a Class C felony, which carries a penalty of up to ten years in prison and a $15,000 fine.

Collins, who has compiled a staunchly anti-choice voting record during her time in the legislature, co-sponsored a similar bill in 2014 and was the primary sponsor of one in 2015.  

Sen. Gerald Allen (R-Tuscaloosa) introduced an identical companion bill, SB 9, and is partnering with Collins on the legislation. Allen told Rewire that Collins has been a “very strong advocate for the sanctity of life,” and the two lawmakers will attempt to move the bills through their respective chambers.

Allen said that it’s important to take opportunities “to put together legislation that will encourage the mother to carry that child full-term and to have that child instead of aborting the baby.”

Allen has sponsored several pieces of anti-choice legislation during his time in the legislature. He was elected as a state representative in 1994 before being elected to the senate in 2010. Allen sponsored bills to restrict medication abortion and ban insurance coverage of abortion in 2011 and 2012, and he was a co-sponsor of a so-called personhood bill in 2013.

Courts have repeatedly rejected so-called heartbeat bans. Republicans in Arkansas and North Dakota passed so-called heartbeat legislation in 2013, and both laws were blocked in court.

Allen acknowledged the successful court challenges to “heartbeat” bans, but said that it was important to continue to debate the issue.

“We do understand that there are certain court battles taking place and some rulings that are forthcoming, and this may be discouraging to pro-life people like myself,” Allen said. “But I think it’s important to keep it before the people.”

Both bills have been referred to committee, and await hearings.

Allen declined to speculate on the possibility of either bill being being passed by committee or receiving a floor vote, and reiterated that he thinks it’s important to keep raising the issue.

Rep. Ed Henry (R-Hartselle) is reportedly drafting a pair of anti-choice bills, but has yet to file any legislation, including a bill that would propose a constitutional amendment that would define life as beginning at conception.

So-called personhood amendments seek to classify fertilized eggs, zygotes, embryos, and fetuses as “persons,” and to grant them full legal protection under the U.S. Constitution, including the right to life from the moment of conception.

Susan Watson, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, told Rewire that these laws, if enacted, could have widespread impact on reproductive health care.

“If they declare a fetus is a person at conception that would prevent access to safe and legal abortion,” Watson said. “It could also have an impact on many other health-care areas.”

Henry told the Times Daily that he would like the amendment to appear on the November ballot despite repeated voter rejection of the anti-choice measure. “If I can get it on any ballot, I think it will pass,” Henry said. “It’s just a matter of getting it out of the legislature.”

If a “personhood” ballot measure were to be approved in Alabama, it would be the first time voters in any state approved such a measure. “Personhood” amendments have been defeated by wide margins in Colorado, North Dakota, and Mississippi.

“If it did not pass in Mississippi, it will not pass in Alabama,” Raven said. “I think when people come to realize the full scope of personhood, including the possible bans on contraception, they think it’s government overreach gone way too far.”

Henry is reportedly preparing to file a bill, similar to legislation he sponsored in 2015, that would prohibit the Alabama Department of Public Health from issuing or renewing a health center license to an abortion clinic or reproductive health center located within 2,000 feet of a public school.

The bill would have regulated abortion clinics in the same manner as registered sex offenders. “It’s insulting to women to compare a reproductive health-care center to sex offenders,” Raven said.

The legislation targeted the Alabama Women’s Center in Huntsville, which is the only clinic that provides abortion services in northern Alabama. The Rev. James Henderson, an anti-choice activist and member of the Alabama State Republican Executive Committee, took credit for drafting the legislation and said that the bill was designed to force the Alabama Women’s Center to close.

“You can’t target a particular clinic just because you don’t like what they’re doing,” Watson said.

During an anti-choice protest in January, Henderson told that the legislation would be a priority for Gov. Robert Bentley (R) during the 2016 legislative session. “We think that’s a disgrace that there’s an abortion clinic directly across the street from a public school,” Henderson said. “We have good pledges from our legislators to help get this through the system.”

The bill was passed by lawmakers in the Republican-controlled house, and then passed by a state senate committee with three days left in the 2015 legislative session. The bill was never brought to the state senate floor for a vote.

Alabama lawmakers in 2015 failed to pass any anti-choice legislation, despite Republicans having a sizable majority.

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