LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Kentucky lawmakers and the American Civil Liberties Union are again locked in battle over abortion rights.
The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday shortly after Republican Gov. Matt Bevin signed a new law banning a common second-trimester abortion procedure known as "dilation and evacuation."
Kentucky's GOP-led legislature passed the bill overwhelmingly. It is the second abortion law in as many years to draw a court challenge.
"We're suing Kentucky yet again — this time to stop state politicians from banning a safe abortion method," said Talcott Camp, of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. "This law disregards a woman's health and decisions in favor of a narrow ideological agenda."
Bevin is an abortion opponent. His communications director, Elizabeth Kuhn, said Wednesday that the ACLU's lawsuit, while not surprising, was "nonetheless disturbing." She said the new law seeks to protect the unborn from a "gruesome practice," adding that few issues are as "commonsense as protecting the most vulnerable among us" from such a "horrific act."
Kentucky's lone abortion clinic and its physicians are plaintiffs in the suit, which seeks to block the law's enforcement while the ACLU proceeds with claims that the law is unconstitutional.
The dilation and evacuation procedure was used in 537 of 3,312 abortions done in Kentucky in 2016, according to state statistics. The law's ban applies to all procedures performed 11 weeks after fertilization — equivalent to 13 weeks in terms of how physicians measure pregnancy, the suit says.
For women in their second trimester who are covered by the ban, the result is severe — "extinguished access" to abortion in Kentucky, the suit said.
"The act has forced plaintiffs to cancel the appointments of patients seeking time-sensitive and constitutionally protected health care, and will force them to continue turning patients away," it said.
Abortion providers violating the law are guilty of a felony that carries up to five years in prison. Women undergoing such abortions would not face prosecution.
The only other medically proven abortion method available after the earliest weeks of the second trimester is a procedure performed in hospitals or similar facilities able to admit and monitor patients overnight, the suit said. Hospital-based abortions are available only in "extremely rare circumstances" in Kentucky, it said.
"Therefore, Kentucky women have essentially no other option but to obtain abortions in an outpatient facility, and starting early in the second trimester, D&E is the only outpatient method of abortion," the suit said.
The ACLU warned repeatedly that it would challenge the measure if it became law.
When the bill was debated in the legislature, its supporters used graphic descriptions of the D&E procedure. Republican Sen. Stephen Meredith described the procedure as "barbaric and inhumane." He and other bill supporters noted that at 10 weeks, an ultrasound shows that a fetus has fingers, hands, arms, toes, feet, legs and ears.
Kentucky's GOP has successfully pushed abortion-related measures since Bevin won the governorship and the GOP took complete control of the legislature.
In the opening days of last year's legislative session, lawmakers passed two abortion measures. One required doctors to conduct an ultrasound exam before an abortion and then try to show fetal images to the pregnant woman, who could avert her eyes. The other banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy unless the mother's life is in danger.
The ultrasound law was challenged and a federal judge struck it down. The state has appealed.
In another case, the state's last abortion clinic is embroiled in a licensing fight that began when Bevin's administration claimed the facility lacked proper agreements with a hospital and an ambulance service in case of medical emergencies.
The clinic filed a federal lawsuit to prevent the state from revoking its license. A trial was held last year but no ruling has been issued.