LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A federal judge on Thursday temporarily blocked a state law that effectively eliminated abortions in Kentucky after the state’s two remaining clinics said they couldn’t meet its requirements.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings was a victory for abortion rights advocates and a setback for the Republican-led legislature, which passed the law in March and then overrode Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto of the measure last week. Both of the clinics indicated Thursday that they would immediately resume abortion services.
The new law bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy and requires women to be examined by a doctor before receiving abortion pills. It also contains new restrictions and reporting requirements that the Kentucky clinics said they couldn’t immediately comply with. Noncompliance can result in stiff fines, felony penalties and revocation of physician and facility licenses.
Jennings' order did not delve into the larger issue of the new law's constitutionality. Instead, it focused on the clinics' claims that they're unable to immediately comply with the measure because the state hasn’t yet set up clear guidelines. The judge said her order does not prevent the state from crafting regulations.
Jennings, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, said she decided to block the measure because she lacked information "to specifically determine which individual provisions and subsections are capable of compliance.”
Abortion rights activists said they were relieved by the decision but noted more rounds are ahead in the legal fight.
“This is a win, but it is only the first step," said Rebecca Gibron, the CEO for Planned Parenthood in Kentucky, where its clinic is immediately resuming abortion services. "We’re prepared to fight for our patients’ right to basic health in court and to continue doing everything in our power in ensure abortion access is permanently secured in Kentucky.”
Kentucky’s Republican attorney general, Daniel Cameron, signaled that he'll be ready to defend the law as the case proceeds.
“We are disappointed that the court chose to temporarily halt enforcement of the entire law,” he said in a statement. "This law is constitutional and we look forward to continuing to defend it.”
Supporters say the goal of Kentucky’s new law is to protect women’s health and strengthen oversight. Opponents say the objective all along was to stop abortions in the state completely.
Abortions had been suspended at the two Louisville clinics since the law took effect last week. During that time, women in Kentucky were forced to either travel out of state to end their pregnancies or wait for the judge’s decision. Many of the women affected were young and poor, advocates said.
Attorneys for the two clinics — Planned Parenthood and EMW Women's Surgical Center — filed separate lawsuits challenging the law and seeking an order halting its enforcement. Jennings issued the order in the Planned Parenthood suit.
“Abortion remains legal and is once again available in Kentucky,” said Heather Gatnarek, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, which filed the suit on behalf of EMW. "We will always fight to keep it that way here and across the country.”
Kentucky is among several GOP-led states that have passed restrictive abortion laws in anticipation of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that could reverse the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that established a right to abortion nationwide nearly 50 years ago.
Pending before the high court is a challenge to a law passed in a fifth state, Mississippi, that bans abortion after 15 weeks. The court has indicated that it will allow Mississippi’s ban to stand and conservative justices have suggested they support overruling Roe.
The Mississippi case loomed even as abortion rights supporters cheered their victory Thursday in Kentucky.
“Unfortunately, the ability to receive an abortion will continue to hang by a thread throughout the United States,” Gatnarek said. “In a few weeks, the Supreme Court will decide whether to weaken or overturn Roe v. Wade.”
No matter how the current conservative-dominated Supreme Court handles pending high-profile abortion cases — perhaps weakening Roe, perhaps gutting it completely — there will be no monolithic, nationwide change. Fractious state-by-state battles over abortion access will continue.