Dealing the second blow to anti-abortion activists in less than a week, a federal judge has ruled that an Alabama law that would have shut three of the state's five abortion clinics is unconstitutional.
The law, a version of which has been passed in multiple states across the country in recent years, requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. A similar Mississippi law was blocked last week by a federal appeals court in one of the most conservative districts in the country.
"The court is convinced that, if this requirement would not, in the face of all the evidence in the record, constitute an impermissible undue burden, then almost no regulation, short of those imposing an outright prohibition on abortion, would," wrote U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, in his 172-page opinion, released Monday.
The ruling, by a vote of 2-1, leaves similar laws vulnerable to challenges, but it also raises the possibility that this issue will advance to a higher court. Before the Mississippi law was blocked last week, a similar Texas law was allowed to stand by a different panel of judges, and the Supreme Court often steps in when different courts offer contrasting decisions on the same issue.
Alabama's attorney general announced soon after the ruling that the state will appeal.
The Alabama lawsuit was filed by Planned Parenthood Southeast and Reproductive Health Services, which argued that none of the doctors who provide abortions in Montgomery, Birmingham or Mobile would be able to obtain admitting privileges, and that closing the clinics would make it onerous for women to travel to have abortions.
Thompson agreed, writing that the admitting privileges requirement "would have the effect of imposing a substantial obstacle for women who would seek abortions in Alabama. The law would therefore impose an undue burden on their constitutional right to have an abortion."
The Alabama law, which was enacted in 2011, had not been enforced while the lawsuit was pending. Similar laws were enacted in Oklahoma and Kansas the same year; an Idaho law passed in 2011 was permanently blocked by a federal district court. Arizona's admitting privilege law, enacted in 2012, has been permanently blocked by a federal appeals court.
But similar laws still stand in Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. It will go into effect in Louisiana on Sept. 1.
Many of the legislators who have sponsored or supported admitting privileges laws have been clear: They would completely ban abortion, if they could.
"Even though I continue to be disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed abortion to remain the law of the land, we can take these measures to protect the health of women," said Alabama state Sen. Scott Beason, who sponsored the law.
The Alabama lawmakers have passed other abortion restrictions: banning abortion if a fetal heartbeat can be heard and lengthening the period of time a woman must wait before she gets an abortion to 48 hours, from 24.
Abortion rights activists cheered the ruling Monday as a pushback against the laws that have been passed across the country in recent years.
"As the judge noted today, the justifications offered for this law are weak at best," said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU. "Politicians, not doctors, crafted this law for the sole purpose of shutting down women's health care centers and preventing women from getting safe, legal abortions."