Lower courts have blocked similar laws in Kansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas, but this was the first case to go before the Supreme Court, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which challenged the Alabama law.
Court records show 93% of abortions in Alabama occur before 15 weeks of pregnancy. For the 7% of abortions that occur later, almost all are by dilation and evacuation. Randall Marshall, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, said the ban would have effectively ended access to second trimester abortions in Alabama if it had been allowed to take effect.
"We are not surprised by the Supreme Court's decision to deny reviewing this case. In doing so, they are upholding the Supreme Court's own precedent in protecting a woman's right to access the healthcare she needs. A woman's health, not Alabama politicians, should drive personal medical decisions," Marshall said.
Planned Parenthood said the decision was a victory for abortion access in the state, but warned of the continuing push to enact new restrictions on abortion. "This is a major victory for Alabamians and people everywhere. The courts have for now protected our constitutional right to access abortion. But the fight is far from over," said Staci Fox, CEO and president of Planned Parenthood Southeast.
Justice Clarence Thomas, who supports overturning the Roe v. Wade decision that first declared abortion rights, did not dissent from the decision to pass on the Alabama case, but described the abortion procedure at issue as "particularly gruesome."
"The notion that anything in the Constitution prevents States from passing laws prohibiting the dismembering of a living child is implausible," Thomas said. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said he was disappointed in the court's decision not to hear the Alabama case, and added "I believe that the day of reckoning for Roe is coming."
"I am disappointed that the United States Supreme Court has decided not to hear Alabama's appeal of a lower-court decision that invalidated our state law, enacted in 2016, prohibiting dismemberment abortion — a method of killing an unborn child that cannot be described in even the most clinical of terms to hide its monstrosity and gruesomeness," the Alabama attorney general said.
Two Alabama abortion clinics and the ACLU had challenged the 2016 law in court. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson found the law was amount to a virtual ban on abortion in the state after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Thompson's ruling blocking the law, but two of the three judges on the panel said they voted to affirm only because they are bound by past Supreme Court decisions in support of abortion rights.
The state will now have to pay attorney fees to the ACLU and other plaintiff lawyers in the case. The Friday decision comes as some conservative states are seeking to enact far-reaching restrictions on abortion.
Alabama lawmakers this year passed a law that would ban almost all abortions in the state, in the hopes of sparking a new court case that might prompt justices to revisit Roe. That near-total abortion ban, which is slated to take effect in November, is facing a challenge in court.
Marshall said the Friday decision on the procedure ban is perhaps a sign that justices, "are not ready to go in and make sweeping changes." The Supreme Court still is likely to hear an election year case involving abortion, a challenge to a Louisiana law that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. A district judge who barred the state from enforcing the law found it would close one or two of the state's three abortion clinics.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law and would have let it take effect pending a Supreme Court appeal. But the justices kept the law on hold in a 5-4 vote in February, pending a full review of the case.
Louisiana was among 21 states that urged the high court to hear the Alabama case. The other states, like Louisiana, have passed sweeping abortion restrictions, including an abortion ban as early as six weeks when a fetal heartbeat can be detected.
Chandler reported from Montgomery, Alabama.