In Alabama, Opposition to Abortion Runs Deep

In Alabama, Opposition to Abortion Runs Deep

Volunteers escorted a woman past protesters into a Montgomery facility, one of the three remaining clinics that provide abortions in Alabama.

© Melissa Golden for The New York Times

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Even before Alabama passed one of the nation’s most restrictive bans on abortions in decades, the procedure had been in decline in the state after years of limits.

The remaining doctors who perform abortions — they have dwindled to a handful — work at only three clinics in a state where there once were more than a dozen. Dr. Yashica Robinson, who provides abortions in Huntsville, said she had been the target of a letter-writing campaign to have her hospital privileges revoked. Even some fellow medical workers, she said, have showed signs of hostility toward her.

“If I wasn’t here, this would not be at the top of my list for places to go,” Dr. Robinson said of the climate in Alabama.

Then this week came the new law, which, if permitted to take effect by the courts, would end most legal abortions in the state and make it a felony for Dr. Robinson to perform one.

“This is absolutely going to scare people away,” she said.

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Outside the state, Alabama’s abortion ban has been perceived as a sudden and stunning push by a State Legislature overwhelmingly dominated by men. But this is a state where opposition to abortion is widespread.

Opinion polling has repeatedly shown that a broad segment of Alabama voters, including a majority of women, generally oppose abortion rights, and for many of them, passage of the ban was a triumph. Just last year, residents overwhelmingly endorsed a change to the State Constitution declaring it Alabama’s policy “to recognize and support the sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children, including the right to life.”

Although women hold only 22 of 140 seats in the Alabama Legislature — one of the smallest percentages in the country — they also held important roles in the abortion debate in Montgomery, the capital. A woman, Representative Terri Collins, was the primary sponsor of the new law, and Gov. Kay Ivey, the second woman ever to lead Alabama, signed the ban, calling it “a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God.”

“A lot of Republican women are actually more hard-core about pro-life issues than men,” said Jackie Curtiss, the chairwoman of the Young Republican Federation of Alabama. “All Republicans in Alabama, for the most part, are pro-life, but sometimes the ones who push it the hardest are women.”

Indeed, deeply felt personal views on abortion, often cemented in Alabama’s churches, can also be of enormous political consequence. Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledge that for many people in both parties, regardless of gender, opposition to abortion is simply good politics.

a man holding a sign in front of a building: Pro-choice supporters protest in front of the Alabama State House as Alabama state Senate votes on the strictest anti-abortion�bill in the United States at the Alabama Legislature in Montgomery, Alabama. REUTERS/Chris Aluka Berry

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National debate over the state’s abortion ban has focused on Ms. Ivey, a Republican who was little known beyond Alabama until this week but has been one of the state’s most enduring political survivors. Since 2003, Ms. Ivey, 74, has held statewide office — treasurer, then lieutenant governor and finally governor through an era of extraordinary tumult in Alabama politics that included a State House speaker’s indictment and an attention-seizing United States Senate race.

Ms. Ivey became governor in 2017 after a tawdry scandal led to Robert Bentley’s resignation. Last year, capping a campaign marked by her defense of Confederate monuments and of the abortion-related proposal to amend the State Constitution, she won a full term with ease.

At her inauguration, she left an empty seat for Lurleen Wallace, the first woman to serve as Alabama’s governor, who Ms. Ivey described as “one of my childhood heroes.”

But Ms. Ivey’s role in the abortion legislation resonated most at the end, and Republicans largely relied on Ms. Collins, who represents a district in North Alabama, to be the public face of the abortion ban. Like Ms. Ivey, Ms. Collins, who joined the Legislature in 2010 as Republicans took control of Montgomery for the first time since Reconstruction, has been unflinching in her opposition to abortion.

“This bill is about challenging Roe v. Wade and protecting the lives of the unborn because an unborn baby is a person who deserves love and protection,” Ms. Collins said before the governor signed the proposal — and after lawmakers went along with her efforts to keep exceptions for rape and incest out of the bill.

Despite a national outcry — and a more muted one in Alabama — years of polling suggests that many residents support strict abortion limits. In 2014, the Pew Research Center found that 58 percent of Alabamians believed that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Of them, 51 percent were women. Public and private polling in later years have showed similar patterns, political strategists said.

Emboldened, state officials have for years worked to curb abortions, and records show the efforts have had significant effect. In 2007, state records show, there were 11,267 abortions in Alabama. In 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, there were 6,768.

Alabama’s three remaining clinics are in cities: Huntsville, the anchor of a prosperous part of North Alabama; Montgomery, the capital; and Tuscaloosa, where a clinic stands across the street from apartments popular with University of Alabama students. In most cases, Medicaid will not pay for abortions in the clinics. Outside them, protesters sometimes stand in the rain.

The rightward shift in Alabama’s abortion politics have been heavily influenced by the state’s most powerful religious denominations, which have increasingly emphasized the issue in recent years. And in interviews with women in Alabama, religion often surfaced as an essential factor in their opposition to the procedure.

“I’m Christian and I don’t believe we need to be playing God, deciding who gets born and who gets aborted,” said Caroline Reddy, 32, a mother of two children. “I believe it’s murder. If people would have behaved in a proper way they wouldn’t be in that situation.”

In Hamilton, not far from the Mississippi line, Mallory Parker, 17, said she believed every pregnancy had a divine purpose, even in instances of rape or incest.

“I believe if a woman carries a child, despite the situation, it is part of God’s plan,” she said. “No one is asking her to raise it, but I do believe if that child was created, it has a purpose and it’s our duty to humanity to allow it life instead of dictating if it should live or not just because of how it got here.”

Still, other women said they were alarmed by the limits emerging from the Legislature and the governor’s office, which opponents have vowed to challenge in court.

“It’s insulting as an educated woman — in consultation with my highly educated doctor — that I can’t come to a decision that’s best for me and for my health,” said Erin Arnold, who lives in Birmingham and teaches biology. “A woman should have agency over her body.”

She added: “I sometimes wonder if Alabama is the state to raise my children. I waver. When laws like this pass, it’s frustrating.”

A culture of silence about women’s health is pervasive in many of the state’s 67 counties.

“Girls and women do not talk about their health issues here,” said Emily Capilouto, 31, who also lives in Birmingham. “You turn to those close to you when these issues arise, but now we are talking about it on a state level and nationally because of what’s happening, but I don’t know that there are larger conversations going on in the community.”

Beyond highly limited abortion access, critics of the bill contend that the restrictions distract from Alabama’s endemic problems and further threaten a deeply troubled health care network that offers the state’s roughly two million women few options for specialized care, especially in rural areas.

Across the state, there are fewer than 500 obstetricians and gynecologists, and in almost half of Alabama’s counties, there are no doctors who specialize in the health of women. In crucial barometers of health care quality, including infant mortality and deaths of women during childbirth, Alabama has some of the nation’s worst figures.

“If you argue the point that this is a matter of life for children, there is no evidence from birth to death that Alabama is in any way concerned about the lives of children,” said Wayne Flynt, one of the state’s leading historians. “There is a profound difference between being pro-fetus, in which I think Alabama’s credentials are pretty solid, and pro-life.”

Republicans dispute that. But as the week — and the outrage — wore on, they seemed increasingly mindful that voters, no matter their enthusiasm for the ban, might soon want to move beyond the uproar.

“For the remainder of this session, I now urge all members of the Alabama Legislature to continue seeking the best ways possible to foster a better Alabama in all regards, from education to public safety,” Ms. Ivey said after she signed the bill. “We must give every person the best chance for a quality life and a promising future.”

Timothy Williams reported from Montgomery, and Alan Blinder from Atlanta. Dan Levin contributed reporting from New York.


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