The conservative push to outlaw abortion reached another milestone Tuesday when Alabama’s Senate passed a bill that bans the procedure at all stages of pregnancy and punishes doctors caught performing it with up to 99 years in prison.
The Republican-controlled Senate rejected by a 21-11 vote an amendment to make an exception for rape and incest victims, drawing scorn from Democrats.
“You just aborted and you raped the state of Alabama,” Sen. Minority Leader Bobby Singleton railed at his Republican colleagues after the vote against the amendment. “All of you should be put in jail for this abortion that you just laid on the state of Alabama. This is just a shame. This is a disgrace. It is a travesty.”
In an extraordinary protest against the vote on the amendment, Singleton vowed that Democrats would stay up through the night to filibuster the bill.
“You just raped every little girl,” he shouted. “You just raped every woman who’s been raped by a man. You just raped them all over again. Yes, I said it and I hope your conscience is eating your head up. I hope it’s eating you bad.”
After more than 4½ hours of political, theological and moral arguments, the Senate voted to end the debate and vote on the bill, the Alabama Human Life Protection Act.
It is now headed to the desk of Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican who is expected to sign it into law.
But the ban is unlikely to go into effect anytime soon. Even its supporters acknowledge the bill is unconstitutional and a deliberate attempt to provoke a lawsuit that could push the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider its 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision.
In that landmark case, the justices ruled that states may not restrict abortion before the fetus is viable, usually about 23 or 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Now that the court has a solid conservative majority — following President Trump’s appointment of Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh — a succession of states in the South and Midwest have passed a raft of laws that restrict abortion access.
Last week, Georgia became the fourth state this year to enact a law outlawing most abortions at about six weeks — before most women know they are pregnant.
The Alabama bill goes further, criminalizing all abortion and classifying it as a class A felony. Though a woman who got an abortion in the state would suffer no penalty, a doctor caught performing the procedure would face between 10 and 99 years in prison.
The bill sailed through the House two weeks ago with only one exception: when the woman’s health is at serious risk. But last week, Sen. Tom Whatley, a Republican, introduced an amendment for rape or incest. It was voted down last week, but after a vitriolic shouting match senators agreed to cool down over the weekend and revisit the issue Tuesday.
The architects of the Alabama bill and their supporters opposed the amendment on the basis that it muddied their argument and undermined their goal of persuading the Supreme Court to recognize the rights of the unborn.
If a fetus is a person, they said, how is it OK to end its life if the mother is a victim of rape or incest?
“The question for me, for us, is when a person is a person,” Republican Sen. Clyde Chambliss, one of the bill’s sponsors, said Tuesday. “The 14th Amendment says that we are guaranteed, or we should not be deprived of, life, liberty and property. So life is the question. When does a life become a life? Right now, legally we don’t know the answer to this question. This bill is in the hopes of us getting to that question.”
The discussion on the Senate floor was highly personal.
The first Democrat to speak, Sen. Rodger Smitherman, told colleagues that he and his wife decided not to abort their son after doctors said he had a chromosomal abnormality and it was unlikely he would be born alive.
He and his wife ultimately decided to have the child, who died a few months after he was born.
“The significance is that I had the choice,” he said. “The Legislature did not make the choice for me.”
In a broad discussion, senators quoted the Bible, Abraham Lincoln, even James Brown.
“This is a man's world,” said Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, a Democrat and one of just four women in the 35-member Senate. “But it wouldn't be nothing without a woman or a girl.”
Over and over, Democratic senators accused Republicans across the aisle of playing God with women’s lives.
“What makes you think you are smarter than God?” Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison asked Chambliss.
He replied: “I believe when God creates a life, a miracle of life, inside the woman's womb, that it's not our place, as humans, to extinguish that life.”
Outside the state Capitol, a crowd of protesters held up placards and wire coat hangers, a reference to the primitive tools women once used to induce abortions.
“My body!” they chanted. “My choice!”
Many Democratic senators noted that they personally opposed abortion, but believed the decision should rest with individual women.
No Republicans, other than Chambliss, spoke about the bill or the string of amendments proposed by Democrats in protest: to make Republicans who voted for the bill pay the state’s attorney’s fees; to expand Medicaid eligibility; to provide women forced to have children with prenatal and medical care until the child reached the age of 13; to make a man who has a vasectomy guilty of a class A felony; to state that an estimated 1.5 million people were killed as a result of slavery and the slave trade.
All were overwhelmingly defeated.
But the key amendment was the one for victims of rape and incest.
Before introducing it, Singleton drew lawmakers’ attention to three Alabama rape survivors who watched the debate from the gallery and noted that if the bill passed, a doctor who performed an abortion could get more time in prison than the men who raped the woman.
In the end, four Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the amendment.
A majority of Alabama voters oppose abortion: 59% voted last year in favor of a constitutional amendment to recognize and support the rights of the unborn.
Critics of the ban questioned the motives of those who push for stringent abortion restrictions while refusing to expand Medicaid or address the fact that the state has one of the nation’s worst infant and maternal mortality rates.
“The sin to me is bringing a child into this world and not taking care of them,” said Coleman-Madison, a Democrat who noted she didn’t personally believe in abortion. “The sin for me is that this state does not provide proper care and proper education.”
Opponents of the ban said that passing bills that are likely to be struck down in federal court wasted millions of taxpayer dollars that could be used to address failing schools, healthcare and prisons.
In 2016, Alabama was forced to pay the ACLU of Alabama and Planned Parenthood $1.7 million after lawmakers passed a law requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges, a requirement that was eventually struck down as unconstitutional.
On Tuesday, after the rape and incest amendment was voted down but before the bill ultimately passed, Singleton choked up as he mentioned his daughter.