Abortion in America: Kentucky's Last Clinic Saved From 'Imminent Closure'

A woman talks to a priest during an anti-Planned Parenthood vigil outside the Planned Parenthood - Margaret Sanger Health Center in New York on February 11. Andrew Kelly/Reuters

Updated | The only clinic that provides abortions in Kentucky has been saved from imminent closure after a judge filed a temporary restraining order on Friday afternoon.

The EMW Women's Surgical Center in Louisville was set to shut down on April 3, a move that would have made legal abortion unattainable in the state, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday. The state earlier this month said EMW's medical license would be revoked following a dispute over emergency medical treatment, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which together with attorneys at Lynch, Cox, Gilman & Goodman filed a lawsuit on behalf of the clinic on Wednesday. The state alleges the clinic signed agreements with a hospital and an ambulance service that contained technical deficiencies, but the suit says the state last year renewed the center's medical license through May 31, 2017, and approved the same agreements.

The temporary restraining order, granted by Judge Greg N. Stivers and filed in the U.S. District Court in the Western District of Kentucky, says the plaintiffs—EMW Women's Surgical Center and Dr. Ernest Marshall—showed "that the rights of their patients would be immediately and irreparably harmed absent a temporary restraining from this Court." The order expires in two weeks.

Additionaly, "the entry of a temporary restraining order is in the public interest because the public is interested in the prevention of the potential unconstitutional enforcement of state law," said Stivers.

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Filed in U.S. District Court in Louisville, the lawsuit says that the EMW Women's Surgical Center has used the same hospital agreement since 2014 and that the letter from the state threatening shutdown came "out of the blue" on March 13, when it raised objections "for the first time." The suit adds, "If EMW is forced to close its doors, there will be no licensed abortion facility in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and Kentucky women will be left without access to a critical and constitutionally protected medical procedure in the Commonwealth."

The secretary of Kentucky's Cabinet for Health and Family Services, Vickie Yates Brown Glisson, is named in the suit. Officials with her department, which licenses abortion clinics, have argued its actions are based on patient safety.

EMW has been providing abortion services since the 1980s, and roughly 80 percent of abortion procedures at the center are performed during the first trimester. Although less than 0.3 percent of abortion patients in the U.S. require hospitalization on the same day due to complications with their procedures, some abortion providers are required to have agreements with hospital and ambulance services in case emergency medical care is needed.

In 2014, there were no clinics that provide abortions in 98 percent of Kentucky counties, and 74 percent of the state's women lived in those counties, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion think tank. Between 2011 and 2014, Kentucky saw an 11 percent reduction in abortion rates, with many women having to travel outside the state to receive care, as is the case in many states across the country.

"The state's bureaucratic sleight of hand is fooling no one. This is an attempt to ban abortion in Kentucky, plain and simple," Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney with the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, said in a statement on Wednesday. "We are fighting to keep this from happening."

As the state's health and human services chief, Glisson is part of Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin's administration. Bevin signed two anti-abortion bills into law in February: One banned abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, while the other forces women considering abortion to have an ultrasound. During the ultrasound, a physician is required to explain the presence and location of the "unborn child" and the number of "unborn children" in utero. Bevin said in February that Kentucky is "in a position to lead this nation" in taking away access to abortion.

The battle over the last remaining abortion clinic in Kentucky comes amid a sustained flurry of state-level laws aimed at curbing the procedure. In Kansas, for example, if a proposed bill is anything to go by, state lawmakers also seem determined to micromanage every aspect of women's reproductive health—even to the point of the font size of printed materials given to women. The bill, which passed the Kansas House on Wednesday, would require that women considering having abortions be given additional information in 12-point, Times New Roman font.

At the national level, Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday cast the tie-breaking vote on Senate legislation to roll back an Obama administration regulation that blocks states from withholding federal family-planning money from Planned Parenthood clinics and other health centers that perform abortions. The Title X family planning funds and other federal dollars cannot be used for abortions but can cover services such as contraception and testing for sexually transmitted diseases. Thursday's procedural vote paved the way for a Senate vote later in the day.

This article has been updated to include information about the temporary restraining order.