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Alabama's creative new anti-abortion strategy: regulate clinics like sex offenders

Supreme Court To Hear Abortion Rights Case Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Over the past five years, some states have become quite creative about passing laws that seem specifically designed to close abortion clinics. Innocuous-sounding requirements about building codes or medical licensing have proven so impossible for abortion providers to comply with that the Supreme Court is considering whether to overturn them.

But Alabama might have just come up with the most creative idea yet: forbidding abortion clinics from operating within 2,000 feet of a public elementary or middle school. Two of the state's five abortion clinics fit this description — two of the largest, no less, which together provide more than half of all abortions in the state.

As Hannah Levintova of Mother Jones points out, the bill would quite literally regulate abortion clinics in a similar manner as sex offenders. Alabama state law forbids registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools and child care facilities. And the bill's sponsor has made this comparison explicit.

"We can put a restriction on whether a liquor store opens up across the street and make sure pedophiles stay away from schools," Alabama state Sen. Paul Sanford told the Times Daily in February. "I just think having an abortion clinic that close to elementary-age school children that actually have to walk on the sidewalk past it is not the best thing."

The bill's opponents argue that the children would never even know abortions were performed there if not for the disruptive protests outside of the clinic. This, by the way, is why one Washington, DC, charter school is now suing anti-abortion activists.

Alabama's House of Representatives sent the abortion bill to the governor's desk on Wednesday, in the closing moments of its legislative session. At the same time, the House passed another abortion bill that could ban almost all second-trimester abortions, and tried but ultimately failed to pass a bill that prohibits the renaming or removal of Confederate monuments.

Members of the Alabama House Black Caucus protested the abortion bills by singing "We Shall Overcome" in the chamber for several minutes.

This is part of a larger pattern in anti-abortion lawmaking

If Gov. Robert Bentley signs the school bill within 10 days, he could immediately force two of the state's five abortion clinics to close. If he signs the other abortion-related bill, he would almost totally ban second-trimester abortions by outlawing the dilation and evacuation (D&E) abortion procedure. The only exception is if a woman's life or physical health is at serious risk.

While the school bill is a novel tactic, D&E bans have become one of the hottest new trends in anti-abortion state lawmaking lately. Numerous states have proposed or passed them since 2015.

D&E is the safest and most common method for performing a second-trimester abortion, but anti-abortion advocates have been trying to turn the public against the procedure by rebranding it as a "dismemberment abortion." That's how the Alabama bill refers to it.

But in both states that have actually managed to pass D&E bans — Oklahoma and Kansas — courts have blocked the laws from being enforced because they unconstitutionally ban abortion before a fetus is viable.

This isn't the first time abortion opponents have targeted a specific medical procedure by giving it a grisly nickname. The same tactic was effectively used to ban intact dilation and extraction, or "partial-birth," abortions. Crucially, however, the Supreme Court only upheld this ban because it targeted a rare procedure — and the Court specifically said that women seeking intact D&Es wouldn't have their abortion rights violated because they could still seek out regular D&Es.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has vowed to sue and block both Alabama laws if they are signed.

ACLU staff attorney Andrew Beck told Vox that both laws are unconstitutional for the same reason as other restrictive laws the courts have blocked in Alabama: They unduly burden a woman's right to seek an abortion.

"Just like other state laws that close down clinics without an extremely good reason, the [court] cases make clear that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion," Beck said. "That right is meaningless if she can't access an abortion."