New restrictions on abortion in Kentucky face immediate challenge

Several weeks after Mississippi's governor signed into law a bill prohibiting women in his state from getting abortio...

Posted: Apr 12, 2018 8:41 PM
Updated: Apr 12, 2018 8:41 PM

Several weeks after Mississippi's governor signed into law a bill prohibiting women in his state from getting abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, Kentucky's governor has put his name on a different highly restrictive abortion law.

Gov. Matt Bevin signed off Tuesday on House Bill 454, which bans a common procedure called dilation and evacuation starting at 11 weeks after fertilization, the only exception being for medical emergencies.

Dilation and evacuation accounts for 95% of abortions after the first trimester

Kentucky's governor signed a bill to ban the procedure 11 weeks post-fertilization

That Bevin approved the bill is no surprise; he's been outspoken in his anti-abortion stance. Under his governance, Kentucky banned abortions after 20 weeks and tried to institute an ultrasound bill requiring women to look at images of their unborn fetuses and listen to their heartbeats before getting an abortion. The ultrasound bill was overturned by a federal judge and, as Bevin promised, that decision is being appealed. The state is also now down to one abortion clinic, and the fate of that Louisville clinic has been in the hands of a federal judge since fall.

After the latest abortion bill cleared the state's House and Senate in March, CNN affiliate WDRB in Louisville shared a statement from the governor: "HB 454 signifies Kentucky's unwavering commitment to protecting the rights of unborn children. In a society that increasingly devalues human life, we must continue to unapologetically advance laws that will protect those who cannot protect themselves. With every pro-life bill that becomes law, we send the same message: Kentucky stands for life."

Most abortions happen in the first trimester, but of the 11% that happen afterward, dilation and evacuation (or D&E, as it's often called) "accounts for roughly 95% of these procedures," according to a 2017 policy review by the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights think tank.

D&E is a surgical procedure in which a woman's cervix is dilated before suction is used to remove the fetus. It is a method that is "evidence-based and medically preferred," according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

"Efforts to ban specific types of procedures limit the ability of physicians to provide women with the medically appropriate care they need, and will likely result in worsened outcomes and increased complications," the organization said in a 2015 statement, after a string of lawmakers introduced D&E bans. "Quite simply, these restrictions represent legislative interference at its worst: doctors will be forced, by ill-advised, unscientifically motivated policy, to provide lesser care to patients. That is unacceptable."

Marcie Crim, executive director of the Kentucky Health Justice Network, says anti-abortion lawmakers have been "emboldened by the super majority in our state capitol," by the election of President Donald Trump and by the actions of other states -- including Mississippi, which recently passed a law instituting the earliest abortion ban in the country. (That law was immediately challenged and is currently subject to a restraining order.)

Crim, who addressed the state's Senate Judiciary Committee before the bill's passage, says she's tried repeatedly to appeal to the empathy of lawmakers. She's spoken of the 16-year-old she met who threatened to induce her own abortion and of women who've googled how to force miscarriages.

Researchers with the Guttmacher Institute helped illustrate the extent of such online searches when they discovered that there were more than 200,000 Google searches for self-abortion information in the United States in the span of one month in 2017.

Most recently, when Crim stood before the senate committee, she focused on the burden on Kentuckians, who she says will foot the bill for costly legal battles that will surely ensue. Instead of seeing their tax dollars used to improve schools, health care or infrastructure, the cash-strapped state is using that money -- as well as time that could be spent elsewhere -- in a fight to institute legislation that is not just unconstitutional, she says, but will probably be overturned in court.

Since 1973, with the passage of Roe v. Wade, abortion has been a legal right in the United States. If the goal is to decrease abortions, Crim says, the safest way to do that is increase full access to birth control, which can be a challenge for women in Kentucky.

"A state cannot pass laws that limit federal rights," as outlined in the 14th Amendment, Crim says. "A state can't say in 'our state you have less rights than the rest of the country.' "

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Addia Wuchner, insisted that it isn't an attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade, WDRB reported.

"This law, here in the commonwealth, is about the humane treatment of an unborn child," Wuchner said during debate on the House floor.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Wednesday, arguing that the state law "imposes serious harm on women's health and dignity and will continue to do so every day it remains in effect," according to a statement by the organization.

Calling the bill "further evidence of the coordinated effort by the Kentucky General Assembly to severely limit access to safe, legal abortions," ACLU-KY Advocacy Director Kate Miller took lawmakers to task in a recent statement.

"Despite the claims of certain legislators, this bill is not about dignity," she said. "It is about cutting off access to the most common method of second-trimester abortion. Legislators ignored the testimony of doctors that said this ban would put patient safety at risk."

Six other states -- Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas -- have tried to pass similar D&E bans, only to have them blocked by courts once they were challenged.

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