Physicians could face life in prison under new Alabama abortion law; doctor groups decry 'political interference'

Doctor with patient
Physician groups spoke out quickly against laws such as the one in Alabama that could punish doctors who perform abortions with life in prison. (Getty/wutwhanfoto)

Alabama’s governor Wednesday signed into law the country’s most restrictive antiabortion bill, which could punish doctors who perform abortions with life in prison.

Republican Gov. Kay Ivey signed the bill, following earlier approval by Alabama’s Senate Tuesday. Physicians who perform abortions could face up to 99 years in prison, and attempting an abortion would be considered a Class C felony, putting the physician at risk of a 10-year prison term.

The Missouri Senate passed a bill early Thursday that prohibits abortions after eight weeks, according to CNN. That bill, known as the "Missouri Stands for the Unborn Act," bans abortions after a heartbeat is detected. It allows exceptions for medical emergencies but not for pregnancies caused by rape or incest. The bill needs at least another vote from the Missouri House before it can go to the governor for his signature.

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In Alabama, the antiabortion bill will not take effect for another six months, and opponents immediately vowed to file legal action to overturn the law.

On its Twitter account, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama said it will file a lawsuit in conjunction with the national ACLU and Planned Parenthood asking a court to block the law from taking effect. “Attention Alabama: Abortion is still legal,” the group said in a post, noting the law will not take effect in the near future and “abortion will remain a safe, legal medical procedure at all clinics in Alabama.”

Major physician groups quickly spoke out against the new law.

Six groups representing frontline physicians issued a statement calling on politicians to end what they called political interference in the delivery of evidence-based medicine. The groups, who represent more than 560,000 physicians and medical students, said they firmly oppose efforts in state legislatures across the country that “inappropriately interfere with the patient-physician relationship unnecessarily regulate the evidence-based practice of medicine and, in some cases, even criminalize physicians who deliver safe, legal, and necessary medical care.”

“Physicians should never face imprisonment or other penalties for providing necessary care. These laws force physicians to decide between their patients and facing criminal proceedings. Physicians must be able to practice medicine that is informed by their years of medical education, training, experience, and the available evidence, freely and without threat of criminal punishment,” said the statement issued by the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American College of Physicians, the American Osteopathic Association and the American Psychiatric Association.

The American Medical Association also said the government was interfering in decisions that should be made between a patient and doctor. “The early termination of pregnancy is a medical matter between the patient and physician," said Barbara McAneny, M.D., the AMA's president, in an emailed statement. "The AMA supports access to reproductive services for all patients and opposes governmental actions to deny established and accepted medical care to any segment of the population."

"The AMA strongly condemns any governmental interference—particularly criminal prosecution—into the practice of medicine that compromises a physician’s ability to give the patient all the possible options for treatment so that the patient may choose the option that is most medically appropriate," she said.

John Cullen, M.D., a family physician who is president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, said on his Twitter account that the group opposes the law.

“The AAFP, based on policy, stands opposed to legislation that criminalizes the work and efforts of physicians who provide safe, legal and appropriate medical care. As legislation works its way through the courts, we will continue to promote the patient-physician relationship from interfering laws such as the one recently passed in Alabama,” he wrote.

“No healthcare provider should ever fear jail time for providing the safe healthcare their patients need,” said the Very Reverend Katherine Ragsdale, interim president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, reacting to the Alabama Senate’s vote.

“No one wants healthcare providers to have to decide if their patients are close enough to death to risk up to 99 years in prison. This demonizing of abortion providers only emboldens antiabortion extremists, knowing they have outspoken allies in elected office,” she said in a statement.

“Politicians have no business mandating substandard care for pregnant people by threatening doctors with prison time,” tweeted the Women’s Law Project.

The actions to restrict abortion have some doctors unsettled. In Missouri, Colleen McNicholas, D.O., one of a shrinking group of doctors performing abortions in the Midwest, said on her Twitter feed that by 7 a.m. she received “multiple texts and emails of panic” from fellow doctors.

“Nothing has changed about how you practice medicine TODAY,” she wrote. “I know the threat of criminal charges is scary but continue to practice medicine in a way that is consistent with evidence and what’s best for patients,” she wrote.

Not everyone shared that view, as antiabortion organizations applauded the legislation.

"Like other states that have passed laws concerning when life begins, Alabama has relied upon scientific and medical facts," said Catherine Glenn Foster, president and CEO of Americans United for Life.

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