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Democrats aren’t going to repeal Alabama’s abortion ban this year. They should still try

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Democrats aren’t going to repeal Alabama’s abortion ban this year. They should still try

Mar 20, 2023 | 9:01 am ET
By Brian Lyman
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Democrats aren’t going to repeal Alabama’s abortion ban this year. They should still try
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Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, smiles at the Alabama Senate gallery on March 7, 2023. Legislators gathered Tuesday for the first day of the Alabama Legislature's 2023 regular session. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

In 2012, Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist in western Ireland, became pregnant. That October, she checked into a hospital suffering acute back pains.   

Doctors determined she was suffering a miscarriage. It was terribly painful. Early in their hospital stay, Halappanavar and her husband asked for medication to induce an abortion, which seemed inevitable.

But doctors refused. At the time, Irish law banned abortion upon detection of a fetal heartbeat. And even as Halappanavar bled, even as she suffered nausea and vomiting and chest pains and breathing problems, the doctors did not — or could not — provide her the treatment she needed.

A week later, Halappanavar died.

That Irish ban was uncomfortably similar to the one Alabama lawmakers enacted in 2019. Like Ireland’s, Alabama’s ban is an across-the board prohibition on abortion. Like Ireland’s ban, Alabama’s makes technical exceptions when someone’s life is in danger or if the pregnancy could lead to suicide.

And like the law that killed Savita Halappanavar, Alabama’s abortion ban is an abomination. It treats grown adults as children who can’t be trusted to make their own decisions. It forces victims of rape and incest to submit to their attacker’s actions. And its lip service to the very real risks of pregnancy is undercut by the law threatening doctors providing basic health care with 99 years in prison.

It forces people to travel hundreds of miles to find doctors not facing what amounts to a death sentence. And it puts those who can’t travel that far in danger for their lives.

Democrats in the Legislature are trying to overturn these restrictions. Sen. Vivian Davis Figures of Mobile has sponsored a bill to repeal the ban outright. If that one doesn’t go through, Figures has a second one that would add exceptions for victims of rape or incest.

In the House, Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, is sponsoring legislation that would repeal a pre-Roe abortion law that could be used to prosecute patients seeking abortions.

These bills have little chance of passage. 

Democrats only hold one-quarter of the seats in the House and one-fifth of the seats in the Senate. If the legislation isn’t bottled up in committee, it would go down to defeat on the floor.

For either bill to move, Republicans will have to be more terrified of losing the general election than losing their primary. The Alabama Democratic Party, whose last gubernatorial nominee got fewer direct contributions than the Libertarian Party’s candidate, is in no position to scare anyone.

But Figures and England and every supporter should keep pushing that legislation for as long as it takes.

It’s not because we’ll see any change of mind from Republican legislators on the subject. One recent poll found that 55% of Alabamians believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. But that won’t move GOP lawmakers. I’ve seen them dismiss physicians who talked about the pregnancy complications their patients face. I witnessed them vote for the abortion ban in the presence of rape survivors.

And even if the Senate Democrats managed to peel off nine GOP senators to vote for Figures’ bill, you’d still have 18 Republicans voting for it — a majority in the 35-member chamber.

So I wouldn’t hold my breath about the ban ending this year, or next, or even 10 years down the line.

But make no mistake: the abortion ban will end.

Laws that restrain reality always dissolve. People have many reasons for seeking abortions, and legislation will not stop the need for this health care.

Even a state like Alabama, where the government has spent 200 years building mazes to trap anyone with ideas of respect and common decency, must eventually bow to the outside world.

The question, though, is what precedes the end of Alabama’s abortion ban.

It’s possible it ends, like so many other statutes in Alabama history, through federal action. Maybe the federal judiciary completes its project of discrediting itself. Maybe business groups that teamed up with social conservatives to also topple labor and environmental protections suddenly realize that judges who brazenly overturn legal precedents on abortion can easily do the same with contract law.

But I fear that abortion rights will only return to Alabama after we have a case like Savita Halappanavar’s — a woman in physical and emotional agony, desperately needing treatment withheld by a physician who knows that a self-righteous prosecutor could reward that humanity with 99 years in prison.

Worse, I could see that happening 100 times. Or 1,000 times. And I can see hundreds of state lawmakers, present and future, shrugging at those numbers. Many Alabama legislators have a high tolerance for cruelty and suffering – at least when applied to other people.

That’s why I hope Figures and England and everyone who cares about reproductive health keeps fighting against this ban. Every day the law is on the books, someone’s life is endangered. The sooner we get rid of it, the more likely we’ll prevent that.

Ireland got rid of its abortion ban after Halappanavar’s death. There might be even more tragedy before Alabama gets there.

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