A federal judge has blocked an Alabama abortion regulation that could have permanently closed the state's busiest abortion clinic, saying Thursday that the rule was unnecessary to protect women.
U.S. District Myron Thompson issued a temporary restraining order blocking the regulation last week, saying that the closure of the West Alabama Women's Center in Tuscaloosa could prevent women from obtaining abortions. He followed up the order with an 81-page opinion issued Thursday.
The 2007 health regulation requires clinics to hire a physician with hospital-admitting privileges to handle patient complications. The clinic filed a lawsuit challenging it.
The clinic is one of five abortion providers in Alabama, but performed about 40 percent of the state's abortions in 2013, according to court records. It is also one of two clinics that provide abortions in the middle of the second trimester.
"For all Alabama women, the closure of the largest abortion provider in the state, one of two providers in the state that administers abortions after 16 weeks, has reduced the number of abortions that can be provided here. Finally, and as chillingly recounted above, closing the Center has increased the risk that women will take their abortion into their own hands," Thompson wrote.
Thompson said a Huntsville clinic has received calls from women who could not make the drive to Tuscaloosa and wanted advice on how to end their own pregnancies.
The Department of Public Health regulation requires that doctors who perform abortions must either have admitting privileges at a local hospital or contract with a physician who does to handle complications.
The clinic complied with the regulation for years, but said it was unable to meet the requirement after its longtime doctor retired.
West Alabama Women's Center filed the lawsuit after it was denied a waiver from the regulation. The court case applies only to the enforcement of the regulation on the Tuscaloosa clinic.
Brian Hale, general counsel for the Department of Public Health, said the department is reviewing the opinion and did not have additional comment.
Thompson said the clinic has few cases with complications and that protests by abortion opponents had made physicians hesitant to work with abortion providers. He said the clinic could provide satisfactory follow-up care using a hotline where patients could receive instructions from a nurse or the doctor who performed the procedure.
The clinic closed in January. It reopened after Thompson's ruling.
"The decision recognizes this regulation is completely unnecessary and that closing one of the last remaining abortion clinics in the state would have prevented women from receiving essential and high quality care," Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, staff attorney in the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project. The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit on behalf of the clinic.
Thompson previously struck down part of the "Alabama Women's Health and Safety Act, a law passed by state legislators in 2013 that would have required abortion doctors to have hospital admitting privileges themselves.