A history of abortion law and abortion access in Alabama

About 20 people showed up for an abortion rights rally at the State Capitol steps in Montgomery, Ala., on Sunday May 15, 2022.
About 20 people showed up for an abortion rights rally at the State Capitol steps in Montgomery, Ala., on Sunday May 15, 2022.

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to strike down Roe v. Wade on Friday all but guarantees the end of legal abortion services in Alabama.

Abortion was a crime in Alabama prior to the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision, but it was downgraded from a felony to a misdemeanor in 1951, in part because prosecutors found it difficult to get convictions under the older statute. For about a decade and a half after Roe, the Legislature did not pass any abortion law, but began putting restrictions in place in 1987. The number of clinics offering abortion services in Alabama began a slow but steady decline in the 1980s.

After Republicans won control of the Alabama Legislature in 2010, the pace and scope of abortion restrictions increased considerably, culminating in a near-total ban in 2019.

Abortion in Alabama: Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision expected to end legal abortion services in Alabama

A legal timeline of abortion law and access in Alabama

  • 1841: The earliest ban on abortion in Alabama makes it a crime to "employ any instrument or means whatever with intent thereby to procure the miscarriage of (a) woman, unless same shall be necessary to preserve her life; or shall have been advised by a respectable physician to be necessary for that purpose." A conviction would lead to jail time of three to six months and a fine of $500 (about $17,000 today).

  • December 1894: The Legislature raises jail time for abortion convictions to two to five years.

  • September 1951: The Legislature revises the abortion law, allowing fines ranging from $100 to $1,000 while reducing the crime from a felony to a misdemeanor and setting maximum time for imprisonment on conviction to a single year. The Alabama Journal reported at the time that supporters believed reducing the penalties would make it easier to secure convictions. This law remains on the books.

  • 1971: The University of Alabama Medical Center develops a reputation for pushing the limits of Alabama’s highly restrictive abortion laws. In 1971, the Medical Center was “aborting unmarried teenagers, as well as divorcees and widows who had other children. The center also was aborting all fetuses where the mother had had German measles,” according to the Advertiser's reporting.

  • Jan. 22, 1973: The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade strikes down all state restrictions on abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. Only weeks later, the University of Alabama Medical Center began performing legal abortions.

  • Feb 7, 1976: Alabama's first abortion clinic opens in Birmingham. It was “the first of its kind in Alabama,” the Advertiser reported, offering free counseling, pregnancy testing and pregnancy terminations for $175. Physician's office and hospitals in the state were also offering abortion services at this time.

  • Aug. 27, 1977:  When Montgomery’s Women’s Medical Clinic opens in August, there are at least five known abortion providers across the state mentioned in newspaper reports — one in Birmingham, two in Tuscaloosa, one in Mobile and one in Montgomery.

  • May 1, 1980: The Alabama Legislature approves a resolution calling for a national convention to consider a constitutional amendment banning abortion "except where pregnancy results from rape or incest; or where abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother; or where testing revealed abnormality or deformity of the fetus."

  • 1982: There were 45 locations for women to receive an abortion in Alabama, according to a report from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which studies abortion and abortion access.

  • June 25, 1987: The Alabama Legislature approves a law requiring those under the age of 18 to get a parent's written consent to have an abortion. The law, the first post-Roe restriction in the state, provides exceptions for medical emergencies and allows minors to petition courts to obtain abortions if they are "sufficiently mature and well enough informed to decide whether to have an abortion" or if they have been subjected to physical or sexual abuse by their parents or guardians. Physicians convicted under the law are guilty of a misdemeanor offense and subject to up to a year in jail.

  • 1992: The Guttmacher Institute reports that the number of locations to get an abortion in Alabama has fallen to 20, a 55% decrease in 10 years.

  • May 14, 1997: Gov. Fob James signs a law requiring abortion providers to assess the viability of a fetus for abortions occurring after 19 weeks gestation. The bill restricts abortions in those circumstances to situations in which the woman's life is in danger or if giving birth would lead to impairment. Violations of the law are a Class A felony, punishable by up to 99 years in prison.

  • May 22, 1997: James signs a bill banning so-called "partial-birth abortions," a term applied to dilation and extraction procedures used in a small proportion of abortions in the country. The law makes it a Class C felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, to perform the procedure. It also allows the husbands or parents of women who received the procedure to sue the physician for civil damages.

  • April 17, 2002: Gov. Don Siegelman signs a law imposing a 24-hour waiting period before a woman can obtain an abortion. The law requires clinics to provide information about alternatives during that time, and to perform an ultrasound on a woman seeking an abortion.

  • 2005: Thirteen abortion providers remain in Alabama, the Guttmacher Institute reports.

  • June 2011: Gov. Robert Bentley signs legislation banning all abortions after 20 weeks in Alabama except in medical emergencies. Physicians who violate the act are subject to a Class C felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

  • April 2013: Bentley signs a bill forbidding anyone other than a physician from performing an abortion and requiring physicians at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. A federal judge blocked the law after a trial in 2014, and it was permanently enjoined two years later.

  • April 2014: Bentley signs a bill increasing the waiting period prior to an abortion from 24 hours to 48 hours. He also signs legislation that expands the parental consent law to require parents and guardians sign documents approving the abortion in the presence of a provider, and to provide proof they have legal responsibility for the minor. The law also significantly increases the burden on minors petitioning the courts for an abortion for proving maturity, and allows any participant in the case to request a delay in a court's decision to allow a minor to have an abortion.

  • August 2014: A barrage of increased restrictions on abortion, targeted laws, revoked licenses and other problems squashes the number of clinics in the state to five. A 2013 law had threatened to close three others in Montgomery, Birmingham and Mobile.

  • May 2016: Bentley signs a law banning abortion clinics from within 2,000 feet of a K-8 school.  Bentley also signs a law banning abortions using dilation and evacuation procedures, a bill designed by supporters to present a challenge to Roe v. Wade. The law is later blocked by federal courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear the state's appeal in 2019.

  • May 2019: Gov. Kay Ivey signs a law banning abortion in nearly all cases except medical emergencies, and requiring sexual assault victims to bring pregnancies to term. The law, another attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade, makes performing an abortion a Class A felony, punishable by up to 99 years in prison, and attempting to perform an abortion a Class C felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. A federal judge blocks the law later that year; further appeals are delayed as the U.S. Supreme Court considers the Dobbs case.

  • April 2022: Planned Parenthood stops offering abortion services at its locations in Mobile and Birmingham due to staffing issues, leaving the state with only three operational clinics in Montgomery, Tuscaloosa and Huntsville until the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade on June 24.

Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Brian Lyman at 334-240-0185 or blyman@gannett.com

Evan Mealins is the justice reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser. Contact him at emealins@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: A history of abortion law and abortion access in Alabama