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Alabama Is Poised to Pass an Outright Ban on Abortion

Georgia's governor has also signed a six-week ban, giving the Supreme Court yet more opportunities to overturn Roe v. Wade.
People carry pro-life and pro-choice signs during the 2016 March for Life in Washington, D.C.

People carry pro-life and pro-choice signs during the 2016 March for Life in Washington, D.C.

On Wednesday, an Alabama lawmaker addressed a prayer service gathering not far from Montgomery and promised that the Republican-controlled state would mount the most brazen challenge to Roe v. Wade in decades.

"It is a direct plan to challenge Roe v. Wade in the Supreme Court," Senator Clyde Chambliss, a Republican, told the crowd, according to a report in the Wetumpka Herald. "I would like for you all to pray for that."

The bill would ban all abortions, except in cases where the pregnancy poses a serious health risk to the pregnant person. (It was amended in a Senate committee to also include exceptions for rape and incest, but those were later stripped from the bill.) Under such a law, it would be a felony to perform an abortion, but not to receive one.

On Thursday, Democratic state senators erupted in shouts after the bill passed swiftly without a roll-call—the only way that would log each individual senator's vote, something Democrats were keen to see done.

"Hold, hold, hold!" Senate minority leader Bobby Singleton, a Democrat, yelled after the bill's speedy passage. "Mr. Chairman, there was no motion! There was no motion!"

Amid the uproar and controversy, the senate president, who argued he'd followed proper procedure, moved to delay the final vote for a week. But such a delay is unlikely to have any effect on the outcome. Republicans are a majority in both houses, and it passed the House 74–3.

"I know you all are for this bill, and I know this bill is going to pass," Senator Vivian Davis Figures told her colleagues Thursday. "You all are going to get your way, but at least treat us fairly and do it the right way."

In proposing a near-total abortion ban, Alabama, one of the most anti-abortion states in the nation, has thrown out years of conservative lawmaking that sought to incrementally reduce abortion access. Anti-abortion politicians routinely claim that human life begins at conception (a biological process that does not occur in an instant). With this bill, Alabama simply put its legislation where its platform has long been. The move not only highlights the widespread view among conservatives that President Donald Trump's appointees to the Supreme Court will undermine or overturn Roe. It also signals the GOP's belief that its base, and voters, are ready to end elective abortion in red states.

Alabama joins other Republican-dominated states in a banner year for symbolic abortion bans aimed at the Supreme Court—by far the most popular of which have been the so-called "heartbeat" bills, which ban abortion at six weeks' gestation, when women might not yet know they're pregnant, and when the pulsing of embryonic tissues that eventually form the heart can first be detected.

Georgia's governor, Brian Kemp, became the latest state leader to sign such a bill on Tuesday. He called the bill "a declaration that all life has value, that all life matters, and that all life is worthy of protection."

"I realize that some might challenge it in the court of law. But our job is do what is right, not what is easy," he added, qualifying with a "might" what will undoubtedly happen.

"This law is bafflingly unconstitutional," Elisabeth Smith, chief counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. "Bans like this have always been blocked by courts. We will be suing Georgia to make sure this law has the same fate."

She added that "the Supreme Court has continuously reaffirmed that women have the right to decide to have an abortion" despite a changing composition on the bench over the 46 years since Roe was decided.

The truth is neither side knows how the Supreme Court will rule, or even which abortion cases it will take. And there are plenty in the pipeline already—including a key Louisiana law—which could reach the court far sooner and thus shape abortion access in the much-nearer future. Many of those cases, though, began when the fight was still about how and how much abortion can be restricted under the Roe precedent. And while they offer the court the chance to overturn Roe, they also offer the court a chance to continue to narrow its scope.

An outright ban, such as Alabama's, would instead present the Supreme Court with the clearest, most pointed question, not about how states should legislate abortion under Roe, but whether the justices view one of the most important precedents in history as, simply, wrong. In that sense, Alabama is the first state to declare it's no longer interested in winning more battles: It wants the whole war.