The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday said Alabama cannot use conspiracy laws to prosecute people and groups who help women leave the state to obtain abortions.
The Justice Department filed a statement of its position in consolidated lawsuits against Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, arguing that such prosecutions would be unconstitutional.
The lawsuits, filed by an abortion fund and former providers, seek a court ruling clarifying the state can’t use conspiracy statutes to prosecute people who help Alabama women travel elsewhere to obtain an abortion. Marshall has not prosecuted anyone for providing such assistance, but he has made statements saying that his office would “look at” groups that provide abortion help.
The Justice Department argued in the filing that the U.S. Constitution protects the right to travel. The department said that just as Marshall cannot stop women from crossing state lines to obtain a legal abortion, "neither can he seek to achieve the same result by threatening to prosecute anyone who assists that individual in their travel."
Alabama is one of several states where abortion is almost entirely illegal after the U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision known as Dobbs, handed authority on abortion law to the states. Alabama bans abortion at any stage of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape and incest. The only exemption is if it’s needed because pregnancy seriously threatens the pregnant patient’s health.
“As I said the day Dobbs was decided, bedrock constitutional principles dictate that women who reside in states that have banned access to comprehensive reproductive care must remain free to seek that care in states where it is legal,” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a statement.
The Justice Department asked a federal judge to consider its view as he decides the issue. Marshall indicated he welcomed the fight.
“Attorney General Marshall is prepared to defend our pro-life laws against this most recent challenge by the Biden Administration and, as always, welcomes the opportunity,” Marshall’s office said in a statement Thursday evening.
The legal dispute in Alabama comes as several Texas counties have enacted ordinances, which would be enforced through private lawsuits, seeking to block travel on local roads to get to where abortion is legal. The measures would not punish women who are seeking an abortion but would present legal risks to people who help transport them to get the procedure.
The two Alabama lawsuits seek a ruling clarifying that people and groups can assist women leaving the state for an abortion. One lawsuit was filed by the Yellowhammer Fund, a group that stopped providing financial assistance to low-income abortion patients because of prosecution concerns. The other was filed by an obstetrician and two former abortion clinics that continue to provide contraception and other health services.
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