Could Alabama Women Be Jailed for 99 Years Under a New Abortion Law?
Social media discourse about the Alabama Senate’s May 2019 vote to ban abortion included confusion over a penalty of 99 years cited in the law.
On May 14 2019, the state of Alabama’s legislature passed an extremely restrictive law banning nearly all abortions, and social media posts suggested women faced 99 years in prison for obtaining an abortion under its provisions.
The claim appeared on Twitter:
Georgia bans abortion after six weeks & will punish women who go out of state.
Alabama bans abortion even in the case of rape & will punish women with 99 years in jail.
And Republicans fearmonger about “Shariah Law coming to America”?
It’s obvious they’re the ones bringing it.
— Nathan H. Rubin (@NathanHRubin) May 15, 2019
Additionally, a Facebook user shared a lengthy status update about the law (archived here), claiming “any woman found guilty of having an abortion, or traveling outside the state to get an abortion, will be punished by up to 99 years in prison”:
Although the claim was popular on social media, it did not appear in news reporting on the bill’s provisions. A response to the Twitter post above highlighted a portion of the bill’s text, and asserted that it specifically exempted women obtaining abortions from prosecution:
From the text of the bill itself pic.twitter.com/1zymzyL4n1
— South Montana¿ (@elenny452) May 15, 2019
As noted in the above response, Alabama’s House Bill 314 did address women obtaining abortions under its provisions. House Bill 314 began:
TO BE ENTITLED AN ACT
Relating to abortion; to make abortion and attempted abortion felony offenses except in cases where abortion is necessary in order to prevent a serious health risk to the unborn child’s mother; to provide that a woman who receives an abortion will not be held criminally culpable or civilly liable for receiving the abortion[.]
That provision was reiterated on Section Five, page eight of the Alabama bill:
No woman upon whom an abortion is performed or attempted to be performed shall be criminally or civilly liable. Furthermore, no physician confirming the serious health risk to the child’s mother shall be criminally or civilly liable for those actions.
Throughout the text of Alabama’s House Bill 314, a punishment involving 99 years in prison was not mentioned. However, Section Six said:
(a) An abortion performed in violation of this act is a Class A felony.
According to Alabama’s criminal code, a Class A felony conviction carries a minimum of ten years, and a maximum of 99 years:
For a Class A felony, for life or not more than 99 years or less than 10 years.
Alabama’s House Bill 314 was approved by state lawmakers on May 14 2019. Social media posts claimed that the bill would “punish women with 99 years in jail” or that a “woman found guilty of having an abortion, or traveling outside the state to get an abortion, will be punished by up to 99 years in prison.” The bill said that “abortion performed in violation of this act is a Class A felony,” a conviction which carries a penalty of between ten and 99 years in prison.
As written, Alabama House Bill 314 appeared to carry a maximum penalty of 99 years for abortion providers (i.e., doctors), and it explicitly exempted women receiving abortions from conviction under its provisions. However, scenarios in which a woman in Alabama attempted to perform an abortion herself remained somewhat unclear given the language of the law. However, the maximum term of 99 years most likely applied to doctors performing abortions, not the exempted patients.