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Judge temporarily blocks Kentucky's new abortion ban


The Supreme Court has not yet issued a decision in a highly anticipated abortion case that could upend decades of abortion rights. But already, abortion has been unavailable in Kentucky for more than a week. As NPR's Sarah McCammon reports from Louisville, reproductive rights groups are asking the courts for relief from a new abortion law while bracing for even more restrictions.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: At Planned Parenthood in Louisville, the recovery room was silent for more than a week.

TAMARRA WIEDER: So this is where patients would come after their procedure. Generally, all of the beds would be full on a procedure day.

MCCAMMON: Tamarra Wieder is the Kentucky state director for Planned Parenthood. Her health center is one of only two places in Kentucky that offers abortions. It stopped doing the procedure after Republican lawmakers voted last Wednesday to override Democratic Governor Andy Beshear's veto of the new abortion law, which contains a host of new restrictions.

WIEDER: There is nobody in here, and it has been empty since last week.

MCCAMMON: The law known as HB 3 includes a ban on abortion after 15 weeks modeled after the Mississippi law that's currently before the Supreme Court. In anticipation of that decision, lawmakers in states including Arizona and Florida have pushed through similar bills this year. But without the Supreme Court even weighing in, the Kentucky law managed to shut down all abortion services for days, not with an outright ban but through layers of new regulations. Those include rules for abortion pills and providers, requirements for collecting patient information and regulations around the handling of fetal remains.

The law took effect immediately under an emergency provision, but clinics objected, saying the state hadn't had time to create the paperwork they'd need in order to follow the law. Heather Gatnarek is an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, which represents the EMW Women's Surgical Center, also in Louisville.

HEATHER GATNAREK: At this point, it's impossible for the clinic to comply or to take steps for compliance because we need things from the state of Kentucky that they haven't created yet.

MCCAMMON: This afternoon, a federal judge agreed and issued an order temporarily blocking the law after both Planned Parenthood and the ACLU filed lawsuits challenging it. Republican State Representative Nancy Tate sponsored the bill.

NANCY TATE: You know, people accuse me of trying to stop abortions, and personally, they're absolutely right. I would dearly love to stop abortions in the commonwealth of Kentucky as well as everywhere else.

MCCAMMON: Tate says she hopes the Supreme Court will pave the way for more states to ban the procedure outright. But until then, she argues, the law will make patients safer. Reproductive rights groups say abortion is already heavily regulated and that the law would only make the procedure inaccessible. The past week has been almost a trial run of what's likely ahead for many states with Republican-dominated legislatures if the Supreme Court allows them to ban most or all abortions. Erin Smith is executive director of the Kentucky Health Justice Network, which spent more than $100,000 last year helping low-income people pay for abortions and for travel.

ERIN SMITH: So we are going to have to just restructure. We're going to have to think long game. We're going to have to make plans. Like, hey; maybe we should charter a bus. Maybe it takes that.

MCCAMMON: At Planned Parenthood, officials say abortions will resume right away. But Tamarra Wieder says she knows the clinic could be back in the same situation again soon, especially if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Mississippi as many observers expect.

WIEDER: We know it's a temporary reprieve, and it's heartbreaking to see how this is going to play out, to begin to feel the dominoes cascade. It's not going to last long. It's not going to last long.

MCCAMMON: Governor Andy Beshear has called the law an unfunded mandate but says Kentucky health officials will comply if the courts ultimately uphold it either now or in a few months, when the Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision that could allow states across the country to implement more abortion restrictions. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Louisville.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRAMEWORKS' "A NEW SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.