Alabama can't prosecute people who help women leave the state for abortions, Justice Department says

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — 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 an abortion.

The Justice Department filed a statement of interest in consolidated lawsuits against Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall seeking to block him from using conspiracy statutes to prosecute people who help Alabama women travel 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 help.

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.

The Justice Department argued in the filing that the U.S. Constitution protects the right to travel. It said that just as Marshall cannot prohibit “an individual 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.”

“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 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.

Marshall’s office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. In a July statement issued when the lawsuits were filed, his office said it would enforce the state’s abortion ban.

“Attorney General Marshall will continue to vigorously enforce Alabama laws protecting unborn life which include the Human Life Protection Act. That includes abortion providers conspiring to violate the Act,” Marshall’s office said.

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