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Federal judge puts temporary hold on Kentucky’s sweeping abortion law

Escort volunteers line up outside the EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville in 2017. (Dylan Lovan/AP)

A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of Planned Parenthood CEO Rebecca Gibron as Gebron. The article has been corrected.

A federal judge issued a temporary order Thursday blocking a sweeping new abortion law passed last week in Kentucky that had halted all abortions across the state, a decision that allows the two clinics there to resume performing the procedure.

U.S. District Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings in Louisville approved the request of Planned Parenthood, one of the abortion providers, for emergency relief. Both clinics plan to restart this week.

Last week, the Republican-led legislature overrode Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto to pass the abortion limits. The new law, one of the most restrictive in the nation, imposes limits on medication abortion, requiring abortion providers to be certified by the state pharmacy board and outlawing telemedicine for abortion pills. It also requires the cremation or burial of fetal remains and bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. An exception is allowed if the woman’s life is in danger, but there is no exception for rape or incest.

Kentucky became the first state in the country — for just over a week — to stop providing abortion care, ahead of a highly anticipated Supreme Court decision expected this summer that could overturn or roll back Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that has guaranteed abortion access nationwide.

After Texas’s 6-week abortion ban went in to effect, other Republican-led states implemented similar laws to spur test cases for challenging Roe v. Wade. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Tracking new action on abortion legislation across the states

Kentucky’s two abortion providers, Planned Parenthood and EMW Women’s Surgical Center, individually filed lawsuits challenging the law, arguing that it was an unconstitutional ban on abortion in the state.

“This is a win, but it is only the first step,” Rebecca Gibron, the chief executive of the Planned Parenthood affiliate that includes Kentucky, said in a statement. “We’re prepared to fight for our patients’ right to basic health in court and to continue doing everything in our power [to] ensure abortion access is permanently secured in Kentucky.”

Anticipating a favorable ruling by the Supreme Court within months, Republican lawmakers and governors have moved expeditiously to restrict access to abortion, impose new rules or even criminalize performing the procedure, as Oklahoma has done.

Before the law passed last week, Kentucky state Sen. Stephen Meredith (R) called abortion “a stain on our country” and “our greatest sin.”

“If a mother can kill her own child, what prevents us from killing ourselves and one another?” he said.

Clinics in Kentucky had been anticipating passage of the law for weeks, sending patients to neighboring Indiana and other surrounding states for abortions, said Nicole Erwin, communications manager for Planned Parenthood’s Kentucky affiliate.

The situation in Kentucky last week offered a preview of the national abortion landscape if the Supreme Court overturns Roe this summer and states across the South and Midwest quickly move to restrict abortion or ban the procedure entirely. Pushed out of their home states, people seeking abortions could be forced to travel long distances to clinics that may already be fully booked.

Several of the law’s provisions prevented clinics from continuing abortion care, said Alecia Fields, an abortion provider in Louisville.

“It is really hitting care at so many levels,” she said.

The fetal remains requirement is particularly difficult to comply with, she said, requiring abortion clinics to work directly with funeral homes to facilitate an elaborate and medically unnecessary burial process. To adapt to the law, she added, clinics probably would have had to hire more staff, an impossible task in so short a time frame.

“You also have to find funeral homes that are willing to work with Planned Parenthood in the state of Kentucky,” Fields said.

In Louisville, Erwin said, Planned Parenthood plans to continue providing abortions until a judge says it has to stop.

Other judges around the country have halted various antiabortion restrictions signed into law this year. In Idaho, the state Supreme Court temporarily blocked a law banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, modeled after the restrictive Texas law.

Still, abortion access is hanging “by a thread,” ACLU of Kentucky Staff Attorney Heather Gatnarek said in a statement issued after Thursday’s court ruling. If the Supreme Court decides to roll back Roe this summer, she said, many of these laws will be allowed to move forward.