'It Goes after Roe Directly': Alabama's Abortion Bill Heads to State Senate
With a vote on the most restrictive abortion legislation in the United States in Alabama set for Tuesday, Jenna King-Shepherd told how she was just 17 and freshly graduated from high school when, a decade ago, she had an abortion at a clinic in the state that has since closed.
Despite the anger of her father, a part-time preacher, she was determined to go off to college in the fall and get out of a relationship she had realized was emotionally abusive.
Now the mother of a two-year-old son, King-Shepherd is fighting Alabama legislators who want to make the procedure she had a crime. “People don’t think that girls like me are having abortions,” she told the Guardian in Birmingham this week. “I have to speak out about this, because this [legislation] is wrong.”
Without abortion access, she said, her whole life would have been different. “I wouldn’t have my son. I wouldn’t have been able to choose how I wanted to start my family.”
Alabama’s legislation, set to go before the state senate on Tuesday, would ban all abortions at any stage of pregnancy, going further than any other state.
It is meant to be a direct challenge to Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 supreme court decision that guaranteed women in the US the right to an abortion. Backers fully expect the legislation to be quickly challenged and then overturned in lower courts, but hope the case will ultimately make it to the high court and persuade the justices to overturn the landmark decision.
“It’s just a very simple statement: Abortion is prohibited. It’s a crime,” said Eric Johnston, president of the Alabama Pro-Life Coalition, a driving force behind the bill.
The proposed ban goes further than recent bills making abortion illegal at six weeks into pregnancy that have passed in other states, which could also fuel a challenge to Roe. “I think everyone’s seeing the same thing. There’s movement,” Johnston said. “It’s almost like you can smell it in the air.”
The ban, which has already passed the state House of Representatives, would make it a class A felony for a doctor to perform an abortion, punishable by 10 to 99 years in prison. Women who get abortions would not face criminal penalties, however.
Opponents say women would be punished nonetheless by being forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term.
“People who get abortions are not doing so maliciously or callously. They’re doing it out of a place of love and concern for themselves and for the children they already have,” said Amanda Reyes, president of the Yellowhammer Fund, which helps women pay for abortions at Alabama’s three remaining clinics.
About 63% of the women she sees already have children. “They fear that it’s going to put them into even deeper poverty,” she said.
The bill contains an exception only for a serious threat to a woman’s health. But opponents predict doctors will fear making that decision, which a second doctor will have to review.
“For a lot of the people who aren’t healthy enough to be pregnant and have children, that’s literally almost a death sentence,” Reyes said.
Supporters, who oppose abortions under any circumstances, say the harsh penalties for doctors are appropriate. “If somebody killed you in Alabama, it would be a class A felony. If we’re saying that an unborn child is also a person within the meaning of the law, what’s the difference?” Johnston said.
Backers have also resisted adding exceptions for rape and incest to the ban. The state senate erupted into chaos last week when Republicans removed such an exception, leading the vote to be postponed.
The goal for proponents of the new law is to keep the ban “perfectly clean” in order to challenge the existing supreme court ruling, said Representative Rich Wingo, one of the architects of the proposed ban. Anti-abortion activists hope that a more conservative high court may be willing to reconsider the landmark decision, which would pave the way for other states to outlaw the procedure.
“It goes after Roe directly,” Wingo said. “We’re going in the front door and we’re saying to the supreme court, please explain to us how this isn’t a person. With modern technology, with everything that we know, this child needs to be protected under the US constitution.”
Dina Zirlott, 31, of Mobile, said she became pregnant after she was raped at age 17. By the time she found out she was pregnant, it was too late to get a legal abortion, even though she learned the fetus had a serious brain defect. So she gave birth to her daughter Zoe, who died after a short life her mother said was full of pain.
“The damage that it has left with me, with my family is incalculable,” she said.
Women have already been calling in a panic about the law pending in Alabama and one recently signed into law in neighboring Georgia, said Staci Fox, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeast. Some incorrectly believe abortion has already become illegal.
“Who I’m really worried about are the people who aren’t calling us,” she said. “They feel scared and alone and horrible things are going through their mind.”
If the bill passes, opponents plan to sue quickly to block it. “The hope is these laws don’t ever take effect,” Fox said.