Few issues are as contentious in American politics as abortion. That was on full display during an Alabama House committee hearing last week. Rachel Bryars with the conservative think tank Alabama Policy Institute addressed lawmakers, but she said was speaking as a mother. In emotional testimony, Bryars described being 22, a recent college graduate, unmarried and facing an unplanned pregnancy. Bryars says it was difficult, but she decided to have the baby.
“Today looking at my beautiful, articulate, artistic, strong, unique, nearly 14-year-old daughter, I can barely fathom how she might have been erased from existence if I followed our cultures advice,” Bryars told lawmakers.
She was there to support a bill, similar to measures introduced in other states, to significantly restrict access to abortion. Abortion opponents see this as a way to challenge the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. However, the Alabama bill goes farther than other proposals. It would ban abortion in almost all cases.
The bill would make it a felony to perform an abortion, except where there’s a “serious health risk” to the woman. There is no exception for rape or incest. The mother would not face charges.
Jenna King-Shepherd also spoke at that public hearing, but with a much different message. She had an abortion as while a senior in high school and says the decision to have the procedure is an intensely personal one that the government shouldn’t interfere with.
“People choose abortion for a million different reasons and no matter what their reason is, it’s valid,” King-Shepherd says. “No one arrives at that decision flippantly or takes it lightly.” 0:15
The bill’s sponsor, Republican State Rep. Terri Collins, says the proposal is designed to prompt a court challenge.
“We decided it would be best to just offer legislation that simply got at the heart of what Roe versus Wade discussed which was ‘Is the baby in the womb a person?” Collins says. “We believe it is.”
The bill faces opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama. Executive Director Randall Marshall says it’s a misguided move by the state. He says there are already 14 abortion-related cases in federal courts. He says Alabama’s proposed law is unconstitutional and a legal battle would cost the state millions.
“A rational legislature would say let’s wait and see what happens with all these other cases that present the very issue we’re trying to present,” Marshall says.
Rep. Collins insists a court fight isn’t a waste of money. She says most Alabamians oppose abortion, pointing to a constitutional amendment voters passed last year that recognizes the rights of the unborn.
Florida State University law professor Mary Ziegler says there are different camps within the anti-abortion movement. She says the most common strategy had been to propose incremental changes to abortion law. But increasingly, groups pushing a more hardline approach are gaining ground. Ziegler explains there are two reasons for the shift.
“One, a bet that the court will be more receptive to this law than would have been the case a few years ago,” Ziegler says. “Two, that even if the court doesn’t go for it that it will pay off politically to be taking a more kind of absolute stand on abortion.”
Ziegler is skeptical the U.S. Supreme Court would issue a sweeping decision throwing out decades of precedent. She says any changes to the court’s view of abortion is likely to come through a series of smaller rulings.
In Alabama, the House committee last week approved the bill the same day they heard testimony. The measure has enough co-sponsors to assure passage in the House before it moves to the Senate. In the meantime, people on both sides of the debate are gearing up for that court fight should the measure make it into law.
Photo by Matt Wade