Alabama abortion ban debate

By The Washington Post Time of article published May 21, 2019

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As a crop duster with a banner saying “Abortion is okay” hummed above the Capitol, circling back and forth around the governor’s mansion, a group of women below let out a cheer.

“Just another day in Alabama,” said Mia Raven, director of People Organising for Women’s Empowerment and Rights (Power) House. “We knew this would pass and we got ready.”

Amanda Reyes, who works with an abortion fund, was wearing an “I’m on the pill” T-shirt, complete with instructions printed on the back detailing how to get a medical abortion. She also looked skyward: “Here it comes again! That’s just the coolest thing.”

Hours after the Alabama Senate voted late on Tuesday to ban abortions in almost all circumstances - including in cases of rape and incest - women’s rights activists and pro-choice advocates said the decision to approve the nation’s strictest abortion measure had energised them. Knowing that the bill was designed to challenge Roe v Wade, they are gearing up for the fight.

Surrounded by posters and signs like “This Clinic Stays Open”, Raven called the passage of Alabama’s restrictive law “totally expected”.

“And totally blatantly unconstitutional,” she said on Wednesday outside of Reproductive Health Services, one of three clinics that perform abortions in Alabama. Raven has served as an escort to those seeking abortions here, and a hanger charm dangles from her necklace, displaying the instrument that in the past has been used for abortions that had to be done in secret.

“We’re open for women who need abortions. We’re fighting. We won’t stop.”

Conservatives and anti-abortion activists also were prepared for a battle, celebrating the Alabama vote as a victory for their movement and a step towards a national legal reckoning over abortion. Though not demonstrating in the streets, Alabama’s anti-abortion base - which recently helped define the state as officially pro-life at the ballot box - took solace in the fact that the state’s ban on abortion set a new restrictive standard.

“Being a conservative follower of Christ who is pro-life, who believes life begins at conception, this has been what we’ve been longing for,” said Alabama evangelist and minister Scott Dawson, who ran as a GOP candidate for governor in Alabama in 2018. “After years of talk and people campaigning on being pro-life, these Republican senators stood for that in last night’s debate.”

The Senate’s approval of the legislation in a party-line 25-6 vote on Tuesday night sent it to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey’s desk. A Republican who campaigned as an advocate of restrictions on abortion, Ivey has long supported anti-abortion measures.

Kyle Chambliss, a Republican, introduces HB314, which would ban nearly all abortions, on Tuesday in Montgomery. | ELIJAH NOUVELAGE. The Washington Post

Ivey signed the law on Wednesday, saying that the legislation “stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God”.

Ivey said she recognised that the bill might be unenforceable because of Roe v Wade, and “we must always respect the authority of the US Supreme Court even when we disagree with their decisions”. She said the sponsors of the bill “believe that it’s time, once again, for the US Supreme Court to revisit this important matter, and they believe this act may bring about the best opportunity for this to occur”.

Staci Fox, president of Planned Parenthood Southeast, said the group had vowed to fight the “dangerous abortion ban” at every step and planned to sue the state. “We haven’t lost a case in Alabama yet and we don’t plan to start now,” Fox said. “We’ll see Governor Ivey in court. In the meantime, abortion is still safe, legal, and available in the state of Alabama and we plan to keep it that way.”

The bill passed after more than four hours of debate. The chamber’s small group of Democrats spoke emotionally on the Senate floor, decrying a bill they said would force crime victims who suffer rapes and incest to give birth to babies that are the progeny of their attackers.

The GOP-dominated Senate voted down an amendment that would have added exceptions for rape and incest - though four Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the amendment, some of whom had said publicly that they were having trouble with the idea of an absolute ban on abortion.

The only exceptions in the bill are in cases when the health of the mother is at risk and if the foetus has a “fatal anomaly” that would cause it to die soon after birth.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Terri Collins, said it was intended to serve as a direct challenge to Roe v Wade. She hoped the bill would establish that personhood began at conception.

Terri Collins, a Republican in Alabama in the US, sponsored the abortion bill that has become law. Elijah Nouvelage The Washington Post

Dawson said those who supported restrictions on abortion - even in the case of a woman impregnated by rape or incest - believed that the unborn foetus’ rights must be taken into account, and that this bill was the first step to get to that goal.

Eric Johnston, chairperson and founder of the Alabama Pro-Life Coalition, has been working to make abortion illegal for decades, and drafted the current measure, aiming for a Supreme Court that he believes will rule against abortion.

“The time seems right, the circumstances seemed right,” Johnston said, noting that he believed federal precedent on abortion was “fraudulent and improper - now everyone can see the humanity of the child”.

He said on Wednesday that the bill needed to pass in its pure form, with almost no allowed exceptions, or else it wouldn’t send the right message. Johnston said he and other anti-abortion activists spent the weekend calling legislators to shore up the vote against an amendment that would have added those exceptions.

“If this exception was added to the bill, it would have killed the bill,” Johnston said. “Whether you were raped or a victim of incest or get pregnant by consent or accident or even artificial insemination, it’s still a person. We could not argue to the court with a straight face that it’s a person in one instance but not in another.”

Though abortion rights advocates were disappointed in the Senate passing the measure, they said that the move galvanised their movement and that they believed it would draw more public support for abortion rights.

Raven, the founder of Power, spent Wednesday trying to push the message on social media that “we are still here and not going anywhere”. Her bungalow, Power House, sits next door to the women’s health clinic in Montgomery, housing women overnight who come here from Alabama’s rural areas. Volunteers work with the women to help them understand their rights and the services available to them.

“And we do it in red-state Alabama,” she said, adding that the governor’s mansion was just three blocks away. “This is what we’ve been doing for decades. And we want the women of Alabama to know we are here for them.”

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