LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Kentucky’s new law requiring doctors to conduct an ultrasound exam before an abortion, and then try to show fetal images to the pregnant women, came under withering attack Thursday in federal court.
An American Civil Liberties Union attorney referred to the 2-month-old law championed by Republican lawmakers as a “gross deviation” from medical ethics, bidding to block its enforcement. One abortion provider said it hasn’t changed the minds of any of her patients but caused some of them to cry.
Steve Pitt, an attorney representing Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said the law reflects the state’s legitimate interests to protect the well-being of pregnant women and their fetuses. He said the information could sway some women to opt against terminating their pregnancies.
“Saving one life is enough if that’s what it does,” said Pitt, chief attorney for Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin.
U.S. District Judge David J. Hale heard more than six hours of arguments and testimony on the ACLU’s request to temporarily block the law. Passed by Kentucky’s GOP-led Legislature in January, the law took effect after the Republican governor signed it.
Hale did not immediately rule on the ACLU’s request and said he would accept more written arguments from both sides in the first federal court challenge of the law. The ACLU is seeking the temporary restraining order while it pushes its lawsuit asking that the law be struck down.
The law requires abortion providers to perform an ultrasound exam before an abortion and 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 and a doctor then 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, pregnant women must be offered the option to view the image, it said.
The ACLU claims the Kentucky law violates First Amendment rights. It sued on behalf of the state’s lone remaining abortion provider.
The law requires abortion providers to describe what the ultrasound shows, including the location of the fetus in the uterus and the presence of internal organs.
ACLU attorney Alexa Kolbi-Molinas said the law seeks to force information on women while they’re on an examination table, half naked, and undergoing a mandated ultrasound.
The ACLU called Dr. Tanya Franklin, who provides abortions in Louisville, as one of three witnesses. She said some patients try to cover their eyes when she attempts to describe their fetus and show the images.
“Some of them are crying, some of them are sobbing, some of them are defeated and desperate,” she said.
Pitt said any concern for the unborn was “missing in action” from the ACLU’s arguments and their witnesses.
He said there was “nothing ideological” in the law’s requirements, saying it seeks to ensure women are fully informed before undergoing an abortion. The lack of complete information risks inflicting emotional harm on women long after they have abortions, he said. Kentucky law already requires counseling 24 hours in advance of an abortion.
Pitt said it takes only a few extra minutes for abortion doctors to attempt to show and explain the images, adding that’s not “much of a burden” in the interests of protecting the woman and fetus.
Currently, 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.
For years, abortion bills died when Kentucky’s Legislature was politically divided and Democrats ran the House, where such measures were stopped. Republicans already commanding the Senate took full control of the Legislature after last year’s election, seizing the House for the first time in nearly a century. Republicans now have big majorities in both chambers.