Kentucky's new abortion law faces first legal test

AP News
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Posted: Mar 23, 2017 12:16 PM

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's new law requiring doctors to perform an ultrasound exam before an abortion is facing its first legal challenge in a federal courtroom.

Arguments began Thursday morning on whether to order a temporary halt to the law passed by the state's Republican-led Legislature and signed by Gov. Matt Bevin in January.

The law requires abortion providers to display and describe ultrasound images to pregnant women, though women can avert their eyes. The procedure also seeks to detect the fetal heartbeat, but women can ask that the volume of the heartbeat be reduced or turned off.

Besides Kentucky, three other states have laws requiring pre-abortion ultrasounds followed by the abortion provider showing the women the image and describing it, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.

Another 10 states require doctors to perform an ultrasound before an abortion, and in nine of those states, the pregnant women must be offered the option to view the image, it said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky claims the law violates privacy and First Amendment rights. Bevin calls it "sound legislation" and predicts it will hold up in court.

The ultrasound law took effect immediately after Bevin signed it.

It requires abortion providers to describe what the ultrasound shows, including the location of the fetus in the uterus and the presence of internal organs.

Soon after the law took effect, the ACLU responded with its lawsuit challenging the law on behalf of the state's lone remaining abortion provider and its doctors who perform abortions.

The lawsuit claims the law is unconstitutional because it "compels women to listen to this government-mandated speech while lying captive on the examination table."

ACLU attorneys are asking U.S. District Judge David J. Hale for a temporary restraining order to block its enforcement while the case is decided. A doctor at the state's only remaining abortion clinic testified at length Thursday morning that vulnerable patients find the ultrasound requirements distressing.

Bevin has criticized the ACLU as "a bunch of liberal lawyers" who "try to find resolution for everything they don't like in the courts." He predicted the law will pass constitutional muster.

In another line of attack, the ACLU said the law provides no exception for circumstances when a doctor believes the ultrasound procedure would have a traumatic effect on patients, including women who became pregnant as a result of rape or incest.

Hale said he expects testimony to conclude Thursday, though it's unclear when he might issue an opinion.

As the law stands, any doctors or medical imaging technicians violating the law would be fined up to $100,000 for a first offense and up to $250,000 for subsequent offenses. Any physician violation would be reported to the state's medical licensure board for possible disciplinary action.

The ultrasound law was one of two abortion bills that sped through the Legislature in early January during the opening week of the session. Lawmakers also voted to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy unless the mother's life is in danger. Bevin signed that bill into law too.

The ACLU has said it's reviewing the 20-week ban law.

For years, abortion bills died when Kentucky's Legislature was politically divided and Democrats ran the House, where the measures were stopped. Republicans already in charge of the Senate took complete control of the Legislature after last year's election, when they seized the House for the first time in nearly a century. The GOP now wields big majorities in both chambers.