FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Kentucky's Democratic governor vetoed legislation Friday that would have given the state's anti-abortion attorney general new authority to regulate abortion clinics.
The measure cleared the GOP-dominated legislature in the waning hours of this year's legislative session. As a result, lawmakers won’t have an opportunity to override Gov. Andy Beshear's veto.
The bill also would have given Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron the power to suspend abortions as an elective procedure during the coronavirus outbreak.
Another part of the vetoed measure would have required doctors to provide life-sustaining care for an infant born alive after a failed abortion attempt. Beshear noted in his veto message that existing law already protects the life of infants.
Kentucky lawmakers have moved aggressively in recent years to put restrictions on abortions. Their passage of the latest measure, and Beshear's veto, sets the table for keeping the issue front and center in this year’s election, when many GOP lawmakers face reelection themselves.
Republican House Speaker David Osborne said he was “outraged and saddened" by the veto.
“Make no mistake, the governor had a choice and he used it to defend the indefensible," he said.
Cameron denounced the veto as “reprehensible" and “an affront to the people of Kentucky."
In his veto message, Beshear focused on the “born-alive" sections of the legislation. He said existing Kentucky law already fully protects newborns from being denied life-saving care. Beshear, a former state attorney general, added that similar measures have been struck down elsewhere.
“During this worldwide health pandemic, it is simply not the time for a divisive set of lawsuits that reduce our unity and our focus on defeating the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and restarting our economy," he said.
Cameron said there's nothing more divisive than to veto a bill that “protects our most vulnerable."
The bill’s lead sponsor, Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield, also criticized the governor's action.
“I’m not surprised, but I am supremely disappointed the governor has once again shown his hostility to unborn life,” Westerfield said.
Beshear supports abortion rights but backs “reasonable restrictions,” especially on late-term procedures. Beshear narrowly defeated Westerfield in the 2015 race for attorney general.
The new fight over abortion comes as Beshear is commanding unprecedented attention, and has drawn widespread praise, in leading the state’s efforts to combat the coronavirus outbreak. The governor presides over daily virus briefings shown on statewide television.
Abortion-rights groups, including Planned Parenthood Advocates of Indiana and Kentucky and the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, praised the governor's veto. They had denounced the legislation as a “power grab” meant to make it harder for women to obtain abortions.
“Not only is this bill unnecessary, it is a blatant display of anti-abortion politics by extremists in the Kentucky General Assembly,” said Tamarra Wieder, Kentucky state director for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Indiana and Kentucky.
The legislation would have allowed the attorney general to take civil or criminal action against abortion facilities. Under current law, the attorney general needs authorization from the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services before taking such action. The measure would give the attorney general independent authority on those matters.
Cameron had said the continuation of abortions when elective medical procedures are halted amid the coronavirus pandemic showed the new enforcement powers for his office are “necessary and timely.”
The pandemic has led to clashes in some Republican-led states over attempts to prohibit almost all abortions by classifying them as elective procedures that should be put off during the virus outbreak.
In recent years, Kentucky lawmakers have moved aggressively to put restrictions and conditions on abortion since Republicans assumed total control of the legislature in the 2017 session. Some of those laws are being challenged in courts, including one that would ban abortion once a heartbeat is detected, usually around the sixth week of pregnancy.