Democrats in Alabama Legislature file bills challenging state abortion ban

Alabama state Sen. Vivian Figures is pictured in the Senate chamber June 6 in Montgomery, Ala.  (Stew Milne/Alabama Reflector)
Alabama state Sen. Vivian Figures is pictured in the Senate chamber June 6 in Montgomery, Ala. (Stew Milne/Alabama Reflector)

Democrats in both chambers of the Alabama Legislature have filed challenges to the state's effective abortion ban ahead of next month's legislative session, bills that will likely face uphill battles against the Republican supermajority.

The proposals include everything from exempting victims of sexual assault from the ban to a constitutional amendment, sponsored by Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, that would create constitutional guarantees for Alabamians to "carry out one's own reproductive decisions," including on contraception, miscarriage care, fertility treatments, pregnancy and abortion.

Figures filed similar legislation last year. Messages seeking comment were left with Figures last week. A message seeking comment was left Thursday with Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will consider Figures' measure.

(READ MORE: Anti-abortion activists brace for challenges ahead as they gather for annual March for Life)

Other proposals include a measure from House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, to create exceptions in the law for victims of sexual assault and a bill from Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, that would repeal a law last amended in 1951 that makes it unlawful for anyone to administer a drug or conduct a procedure "to induce an abortion, miscarriage or premature delivery," or to assist in such procedures. It levies a fine of up to $1,000 and a sentence of up to 12 months in prison.

Abortion rights advocates have said the 1951 law could be used to prosecute women who obtain abortions. Alabama's current ban makes it a felony, punishable by up to 99 years in prison, for a doctor to perform an abortion but does not include penalties for a woman who has one.

Gov. Kay Ivey signed the abortion ban in 2019, but federal courts enjoined it following a lawsuit. After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned federal abortion protections in 2022's Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, the ban went into effect.

England noted that supporters of the 2019 ban said they did not want to prosecute women who get abortions.

"I don't want us to be in a position again where if the Human Life Protection Act is once again called into question, repealed or declared unconstitutional in part, that we retreat back to a time, way back in time where women were being prosecuted for having an abortion," he said.

(READ MORE: States' divisions on abortion widen after Roe overturned)

During the 2019 debate, Democrats attempted to add exceptions for sexual assault, exceptions the Republican majorities in both chambers rejected. Daniels said his bill comes from trying to add those exceptions.

"This is not inconsistent with where I've always been," he said.

Daniels said there isn't a lot of clarity in the law regarding miscarriages either. He said he and his team had discussed a constitutional amendment, as well.

Figures' amendment would allow the state to ban abortion after "fetal viability," which it defines as "the point in pregnancy when, in the professional judgment of the pregnant patient's treating physician, the fetus has a significant likelihood of survival outside the uterus with reasonable measures." The amendment says viability must be determined on a case-by-case basis.

The measure would explicitly prohibit any bans on abortions needed to protect a patient's life or health. It would also strike out language from a 2018 constitutional amendment saying "the public policy of this state to recognize and support the sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children, including the right to life," as well as language that said that nothing in the state constitution "secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion."

Abortion rights advocates weren't fully sure of the impact of Figures' amendment if it passed. But Robin Marty, executive director of the West Alabama Women's Center, which provides reproductive health services and provided abortion care until the state ban went into effect, said that, even though the bill is unlikely to pass through the Alabama Legislature this year, it's important that it was filed.

"I think that it is very important for people to understand how powerless they are," she said.

Stephen Stetson, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Alabama, said Figures' proposal was a "big swing," but that bills keep the conversation going. He also said the Legislature might look at rape and incest exceptions as an incremental step.

"I feel like what we really need in this state is to center the narratives of the people who have been affected and the people who are feeling pressured to go to another state for health care, the people who are choosing not to come to medical school in our state because they don't feel like they'll get a well-rounded education in reproductive health," he said.

Since the Dobbs decision, measures to protect abortion, including in Republican-leaning states like Ohio, have passed in popular votes while referendums on restricting abortions have been rejected. A February 2023 report on 2022 data from the Public Religion Research Institute found that 55% of Alabamians supported legal abortion in all or most cases.

Alabama does not have a referendum system. Amendments to the state's constitution must be approved through a popular vote after passing the Legislature. Republicans in control of the Legislature did not allow any Democratic bill on abortion rights out of committee in last year's legislative session.

"The thing that people in this state need to grapple with is the fact that they have a Legislature that has no interest in what they as a whole believe in and what they as a whole want to exist in this state," Marty said.

Marty said she hopes people remember that these are their politicians, and they need to contact them.

England said he has hope for all pieces of legislation that he files and that bills can only pass if they are introduced.

"Hope springs eternal at the beginning of every session," he said.

Read more at AlabamaReflector.com.

  photo  House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, listens to a budget presentation from the Alabama Community College System on March 7. The presentation came on the first day of the Alabama Legislature's 2023 regular session. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)
 
 

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