Alabama health care providers sue over threat of prosecution for abortion help

Jul 31, 2023, 10:07 AM | Updated: 12:48 pm

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Health care providers in Alabama, where abortion is almost entirely illegal, filed a lawsuit Monday against the state’s attorney general that seeks to prevent him from prosecuting people who help women travel outside the state to receive an abortion.

The providers say Attorney General Steve Marshall has made statements suggesting that anti-conspiracy laws could be used against groups that provide assistance for Alabama women to travel to states where abortion is legal. The lawsuit, filed in federal court by two former abortion clinics and an obstetrician, seeks a legal ruling that state laws can’t be used to prosecute people who provide referrals and appointment help.

A similar lawsuit filed Monday by Yellowhammer Fund, a group that once provided financial assistance to women seeking abortions, seeks to clarify it can’t be prosecuted for providing monetary help.

“What the attorney general has tried to do via these threats is to effectively extend Alabama’s abortion ban outside of its borders for Alabama residents,” Meagan Burrows, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the providers in the lawsuit.

The lawsuits seek to block Alabama from using prosecution, or the threat of it, to hinder efforts to help state residents obtain abortions where it remains legal. In a separate case, advocacy groups and an attorney sued Idaho earlier this month over a law that makes it illegal to help minors to travel to another state to get an abortion without their parents’ consent.

Marshall has not prosecuted anyone for providing abortion assistance, but he has made statements saying that his office would “look at” groups that provide help.

“Attorney General Marshall will continue to vigorously enforce Alabama laws protecting unborn life which include the Human Life Protection Act. That includes abortion providers conspiring to violate the Act,” Marshall’s office said in an emailed response to the lawsuit. His office did not respond to an email asking to clarify if actions such as providing financial assistance could be prosecuted.

Those statement have had a chilling effect on abortion rights advocates, who already feel like they live with a legal target on their back, providers said.

The suit was filed by the West Alabama Women’s Center in Tuscaloosa, the Alabama Women’s Center in Huntsville, and Dr. Yashica Robinson, an obstetrician. Robinson said she once made referrals for patients seeking abortions, coordinating health history information for medically complex patients, but no longer does so because of the fear of prosecution.

“Tragically, banning abortion in Alabama seems to not have been enough,” Robinson said in a statement. “Those in power want to muzzle providers like me to prevent us from sharing information with our pregnant patients about the options they have.”

The phone rings at least once a day at the former clinic in Tuscaloosa as women — sometimes crying and often desperate — try to find where they can go in other states to end an unwanted pregnancy, the clinic director said.

“We get a lot of the anger — and we know that it’s not us that they are angry at,” said Robin Marty, operations director for the West Alabama Women’s Center. “It’s the situation, but it is very, very hard for my staff. They want to be able to help them.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and handed authority on abortion law to the states, the Deep South quickly became an area of limited abortion access.

Alabama bans abortion at any stage of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape and incest. The only exemption is if it’s needed because pregnancy seriously threatens the health of the woman. Nineteen states have enacted restrictions and many southern states have near complete bans. Marty said that means women often have to travel long distances to receive care, which can bring financial and logistical hardship.

Marty said most people who reach out to the clinic know “there is no abortion in Alabama. What they aren’t aware of is how far that extends.”

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Alabama health care providers sue over threat of prosecution for abortion help