Judge strikes down Kentucky law that put state’s last abortion clinic at risk of closure

Volunteer clinic escorts line up outside the EMW Women's Surgical Center in Louisville, Kentucky's only licensed abortion clinic, in 2017.
Volunteer clinic escorts line up outside the EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville, Kentucky’s only licensed abortion clinic, in 2017.
(Dylan Lovan / Associated Press)

In a victory for abortion rights supporters, a federal judge Friday struck down a Kentucky law that had put the state’s last abortion clinic at risk of shutting down when the state’s Republican governor cited it in his licensing fight with the Louisville facility.

U.S. District Judge Greg Stivers, in a long-awaited ruling, said the two-decade-old law violated constitutional protections. The law required Kentucky’s abortion clinics to have written agreements with a hospital and an ambulance service in case of medical emergencies.

Stivers said the so-called transfer agreements “do not advance a legitimate interest” in promoting the health of women seeking abortions.


“The court has carefully reviewed the evidence presented in this case and concludes that the record is devoid of any credible proof that the challenged regulations have any tangible benefit to women’s health,” Stivers wrote in his 60-page ruling. “On the other hand, the regulations effectively eliminate women’s rights to abortions in the state. Therefore, the challenged regulations are unconstitutional.”

The American Civil Liberties Union welcomed the ruling, though a spokeswoman for Republican Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin said it will be appealed.

“The court’s decision recognized the Kentucky law for what it is: an attack on women wrapped up in a bogus justification and pushed by politicians who’ve been transparent in their pursuit to ban abortion in the state of Kentucky,” ACLU attorney Brigitte Amiri said.

The governor’s spokeswoman, Elizabeth Kuhn, said Bevin’s administration is confident of winning a reversal on appeal.

“We are disappointed that the court would strike down a statute that protects the health and well-being of Kentucky women,” she said.

EMW Women’s Surgical Center, the state’s last abortion clinic, challenged the law. The case revolved around a licensing fight that began when Bevin’s administration claimed the clinic lacked proper transfer agreements and took steps to shut it down.


The clinic countered with a federal lawsuit to prevent the state from revoking its license, arguing that doing so would violate a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.

A trial on the lawsuit was held a year ago. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky joined the suit, claiming Bevin’s administration had used the transfer agreements to block its request for a license to provide abortions in Louisville.

Stivers said that despite the “best efforts” of EMW and Planned Parenthood, no Louisville hospital is willing to join in a transfer agreement. As a result, it’s impossible for them to comply with requirements for transfer agreements, he said.

Attorneys for the state contended the transfer agreements did not put a “substantial burden” on a woman’s right to obtain an abortion. They said the law is needed to ensure that women experiencing complications from abortions are properly transferred to hospitals.