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

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FILE - Protesters for women's rights march to the Alabama Capitol to protest a law passed the week before making abortion a felony in nearly all cases with no exceptions for cases of rape or incest, Sunday, May 19, 2019, in Montgomery, Ala. Health care providers and an abortion assistance fund in Alabama filed a lawsuit against state Attorney General Steve Marshall, Monday, July 31, 2023, over threats to prosecute people who help women arrange abortions outside the state. (AP Photo/Butch Dill, File)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Abortion rights advocates in Alabama — where abortion is almost entirely illegal — filed lawsuits Monday against the state’s attorney general seeking to prevent him from prosecuting people who help patients travel outside the state to end pregnancies.

The groups say Attorney General Steve Marshall has made statements suggesting that anti-conspiracy laws could be used to prosecute those who assist with appointments or finances. The two lawsuits seek a legal ruling clarifying that the state can’t use the statute for these prosecutions.

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One lawsuit was filed by the Yellowhammer Fund, a group that stopped providing financial assistance to low-income abortions patients because of the prosecution concerns. The other was filed by an obstetrician and two former abortion clinics that continue to provide contraception and other health services.

“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,” said Meagan Burrows, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the providers in the lawsuit.

In a separate case, advocacy groups and an attorney sued Idaho earlier this month over a law that makes it illegal to help minors 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.

The comments have had a “disturbing chilling effect” on abortion rights advocates and providers, who already feel like they live with a legal target on their back, said Kelsea McLain, deputy director of Yellowhammer. “We believe it’s our right and our freedom to support people in leaving the state if they need to because the state no longer takes care of their needs,” she said.

The provider 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 medically complex health histories, 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 pregnant patient's health. 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.”