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ACLU Files Lawsuit Challenging Kentucky Anti-Abortion Bill

Ryland Barton
Kentucky Public Radio

Kentucky's legal feud with abortion-rights defenders expanded on Thursday as the Republican-dominated legislature voted to ramp up the state's restrictions on the procedure.

Hours after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit aimed at blocking one abortion bill, the group vowed to return to court to challenge Kentucky's newest and most restrictive measure — which would ban most abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected. A fetal heartbeat can be detected as early as six weeks into pregnancy.

The Kentucky House voted late Thursday night to send the so-called fetal heartbeat bill to the state's anti-abortion governor, Republican Matt Bevin. GOP-run legislatures in several other states are working on similar measures that loom as some of the country's strictest abortion measures.

Minutes after the heartbeat bill cleared Kentucky's legislature, the ACLU said it would file another lawsuit on behalf of the last abortion provider in the state. The ACLU termed the heartbeat measure as a "near total ban" on abortion.

"These bans are blatantly unconstitutional, and we will ask the court to strike it down," said Brigitte Amiri, deputy director with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project.

The bill's supporters were undaunted by the threat of another lawsuit as they pushed through the heartbeat bill on the next-to-last day of this year's legislative session in Kentucky.

"It recognizes that at the sound of a heartbeat, that a child is living," said Republican Rep. Chris Fugate. "And at the sound of a heartbeat, those who would kill the unborn child would not be allowed to do so anymore. Senate Bill 9 recognizes a heartbeat as a sign of life."

The measure would require anyone seeking an abortion to first determine if a fetal heartbeat is detectable. If it is, the abortion would be banned. The measure would provide narrow exceptions for abortions, such as when the mother's life is endangered.

Earlier Thursday, the ACLU carried out its pledge to challenge another Kentucky measure that would ban abortion for women seeking to end their pregnancies because of the gender, race or disability of the fetus. The measure cleared Kentucky's legislature on Wednesday, and the ACLU immediately said it would take the state to court again over abortion.

That brought a defiant tweet from Bevin: "Bring it! Kentucky will always fight for life."

The ACLU obliged on Thursday with its lawsuit that said the bill "strips a woman of her right to have an abortion if the commonwealth disapproves of her reason for seeking the care."

The suit said the measure is unconstitutional "because it bans abortion, under certain circumstances, prior to viability." It was filed on behalf of the last abortion clinic in Kentucky.

The ACLU said it filed the suit in anticipation that Bevin will sign it. The measure would go into effect immediately upon the governor's signature.

The measure would require doctors performing abortions to certify in writing that, to their knowledge, their patient did not want to end her pregnancy because of concern over her unborn child's sex, race, color, national origin or disability.

Doctors violating the measure would face felony prosecution and the loss of their medical license. Any clinic where a violation occurred would lose its license. Pregnant women would not face penalties. Kentucky's last abortion clinic is in Louisville.

The bill's passage prompted the fourth federal lawsuit the ACLU has filed since early 2017 to challenge abortion-related laws in Kentucky. The other suits are winding through the courts.

Now Kentucky faces a fifth lawsuit with passage of the heartbeat measure.

Kentucky's Republican leaders have aggressively pushed to restrict abortion since the GOP took total control of the state's legislature in 2017. It's part of a larger agenda by GOP-dominated legislatures in some states to restrict abortion. Conservatives want to push an abortion case to the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge the court's 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

Meanwhile, Kentucky lawmakers gave final passage on Thursday to other abortion-related bills. One of them would require that women undergoing drug-induced abortions be informed the procedure can be reversed. Another would ban most abortions in Kentucky if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the landmark decision that legalized the procedure nationwide.

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