Alabama has introduced a law banning almost all abortions in the state, setting up a direct challenge to the landmark US Supreme Court ruling which gave women a constitutional right to end a pregnancy.
The legislation makes abortion illegal at every stage of pregnancy, including in cases involving rape or incest, unless a woman’s life is at risk.
Doctors who defy the ban to perform the procedure would face prosecution and up to 99 years in prison if convicted. However women who receive abortions would not be held criminally liable.
The bill was approved by Alabama’s state senate on Tuesday and signed into law by the state’s Republican governor, Kay Ivey last night, making it America’s strictest abortion law.
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It reflects a growing push by Republican-controlled states to trigger legal challenges which could lead to the Supreme Court reconsidering its 1973 Roe v Wade ruling which legalised abortion nationwide.
Since the start of this year, 16 states have introduced legislation to curb abortion rights, including four which have passed laws banning abortion if an embryonic heartbeat can be detected.
That includes Georgia, where Republican Governor Brian Kemp signed the state’s controversial heartbeat bill into law on Tuesday.
Opponents call the "heartbeat" legislation a virtual ban because embryonic cardiac activity can be detected as early as six weeks, before a woman may be aware she is pregnant.
The Alabama bill goes even further – banning abortions altogether, except when necessary to save a woman’s life.
Its authors have made clear that they do not expect the law to pass unchallenged, but introduced the legislation as part of a broader strategy by pro-life activists to push the issue before America’s highest court, which now has a conservative majority.
Abortion opponents believe the Supreme Court is more open to banning abortion than it has been in decades after President Donald Trump, who has vowed to only appoint pro-life justices, nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the nine-judge bench last year.
The president also vowed to veto any legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives that “weakens” the drive to prevent abortion access during an address at an anti-abortion march in January.
Representative Terri Collins, who sponsored the Alabama bill, said after Tuesday’s vote: "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".
That challenge appears to have begun already, with the American Civil Liberties Union, the largest human rights advocacy organisation in the country, promising on Wednesday to file a lawsuit "to stop this unconstitutional ban and protect every woman’s right to make her own choice about her healthcare".
“Today is a dark day for women in Alabama,” said Staci Fox, the president of Planned Parenthood Southeast. “Let’s be clear this is the most egregious attack on access to safe and legal abortion since Roe and we will fight back.”
The case is unlikely to be heard by the Supreme Court before 2020, making it a key issue in the presidential campaign.
A number of Democratic candidates came out against Alabama’s bill, including front runners Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
"This ban is dangerous and exceptionally cruel – and the bill’s authors want to use it to overturn Roe v. Wade," Mrs Warren tweeted. "I’ve lived in that America and let me tell you: We are not going back – not now, not ever."
Mr Biden said Republicans were ushering in laws that "should be declared unconstitutional", saying in a tweet: "Roe v Wade is settled law and should not be overturned. This choice should remain between a woman and her doctor."
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