FRANKFORT, Ky. — Kentucky's new law banning a common procedure for second-trimester abortions was temporarily put on hold when a federal judge signed an order setting the stage for another courtroom battle between the state and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Under the joint consent order signed late Thursday, state officials agreed to take no action to enforce the law pending a ruling on the ACLU's request for a preliminary injunction.
"This brings immediate relief to women across Kentucky who have had their appointments canceled and care delayed if not pushed entirely out of reach," Andrew Beck, senior staff attorney for the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, said Friday. "In the meantime, we'll continue to fight this law and look forward to seeing the state in court."
Steve Pitt, an attorney for the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said the joint consent order would "expedite an ultimate decision."
"This matter is now hopefully on track for a faster ruling," he said in a statement. "The sooner this case is decided, the sooner the commonwealth can stop this horrific and barbaric practice."
A hearing on the ACLU's preliminary injunction request was set for June 5.
The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday shortly after Bevin — a staunch abortion opponent — signed the law banning use of the abortion procedure known as "dilation and evacuation." Kentucky's GOP-led legislature passed the bill overwhelmingly.
The dilation and evacuation procedure was used in 537 of 3,312 abortions done in Kentucky in 2016, according to state statistics. The law bans those procedures performed 11 weeks after fertilization — equivalent to 13 weeks in terms of how physicians measure pregnancy, the suit says.
The ACLU claims the law would result in "extinguished access" to abortions in Kentucky for pregnant women in their second trimester who are covered by the ban.
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.
Kentucky's only 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 suit says 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. Hospital-based abortions are available only in "extremely rare circumstances" in Kentucky, it said.
When the bill was debated in the legislature, its supporters used graphic descriptions of the D&E procedure. 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. But it's the second time an abortion law in Kentucky has been challenged in court in as many years.
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.