Kentucky House passes bill banning most abortions after 11 weeks

The state is the latest to target a common procedure used for later-term pregnancies -- one of the only legal methods available for many people.

The state of Kentucky is eyeing an anti-abortion bill that would ban most abortions past 11 weeks. (CREDIT: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
The state of Kentucky is eyeing an anti-abortion bill that would ban most abortions past 11 weeks. (CREDIT: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Kentucky is moving closer to banning at least one abortion procedure after 11 weeks, part of a wider movement to curb access to reproductive care across a number of states.

The Kentucky House of Representatives voted 71-11 on Monday to ban the “dilation and evacuation” procedure, or D&E, the most commonly-used method for second trimester abortions. Approximately 537 of the 3,312 recorded abortions performed in Kentucky in 2016 used the D&E method, according to state numbers.

Its prevalence has rankled abortion opponents, including state Rep. Addia Wuchner (R-Florence), the bill’s sponsor. Wuchner called D&E “cruel and gruesome” as well as “brutal” while pushing lawmakers to support House Bill 454.

“These lives are small and tiny but they are still human,” she said.

Others dissented, noting that abortion is constitutionally protected and citing wider infringements posed by HB454. “The people of Kentucky did not elect us to be judge and jury over private medical decisions,” said state Rep. Mary Lou Marzian (D-Louisville).

Lawmakers are also concerned about the cost to state residents an inevitable legal battle over HB454’s passage would pose.

“A ‘yes’ vote means you are willing to waste taxpayer money and your constituents’ money on a measure that is unconstitutional,” said state Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo (D-Lexington).

Rep. Tom Burch (D-Louisville) predicted the measure could cost taxpayers upwards of $1 million in legal fees. Kentucky’s American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) branch also indicated that similar bans in the states of Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Alabama have all been blocked in court. HB454 will likely meet that same fate, but conservative lawmakers say they don’t care.

“To that [threat of legal action], I say bring it,” said state Rep. Robert Benvenuti III, a Republican based in Lexington. “Let’s have that trial.”

Like other southern and Appalachian states, Kentucky has served as something of a battleground for abortion rights in the United States. Kentucky itself is home to only one abortion clinic, the EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville, which the state has consistently sought to shut down.

Those efforts have been met with resistance — if the clinic shuts down, Kentucky will be the first state in the country without an abortion provider, forcing residents to travel elsewhere in the country to obtain medical treatment.

Abortion opponents in the state have also focused on other means of targeting the procedure. Kentucky’s Republican-led General Assembly has moved to pass a number of anti-abortion measures since Gov. Matt Bevin (R) came into office in 2015. In 2017, the state attempted to mandate an ultrasound prior to the procedure; a judge later struck down the measure, prompting the state to file an appeal. Other efforts were more successful, including a law barring abortions after 20 weeks outside of life-threatening situations, which went into effect in January.

D&E is the only legal abortion option available for most pregnancies more than 14 weeks along. The procedure involves dilating the cervix before removing (or “evacuating”) the contents of the uterus. D&E is also used to prevent infection following miscarriages and the procedure is considered safe. But abortion opponents in a number of states have sought to crack down on D&E, with at least 18 states moving to restrict or ban the procedure in some way. Only Mississippi and West Virginia have banned the procedure entirely, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Other sweeping abortion restrictions have already made obtaining early abortions more difficult, leaving D&E as many patients’ only option. If HB454 becomes law, those seeking an abortion will have virtually no options later in their pregnancies.

That reality is weighing on patient advocates. Marcie Crim, executive director of the Kentucky Health Justice Network, testified before Kentucky’s House Judiciary Committee last Wednesday and told lawmakers HB454 would have far-reaching ramifications.

“We don’t want more Kentuckians scared and alone in the dark, desperately googling ‘How to give myself an abortion,'” she said.

By contrast, anti-abortion organizations have applauded the measure, while moving to downplay any potential legal ramifications.

“We are stressing that this does not outlaw abortions,” said Brian Shoemaker, assistant executive director of Kentucky Right to Life. “We are just saying that this particular brutal type of procedure for abortions should be banned.”

HB454 is now headed to the Kentucky Senate for a vote, along with another anti-abortion bill, HB455, which would make it illegal for doctors to perform abortions due to a Down syndrome diagnosis. The tactic is another legal avenue commonly explored by abortion opponents.

Kentucky’s efforts come on the heels of another grim milestone for abortion advocates: last week, the Mississippi House of Representatives passed the most restrictive piece of anti-abortion legislation in the country, barring the procedure after 15 weeks. The bill now heads to Gov. Phil Bryant (R), who is expected to sign it after pledging in 2014 to “end abortions in Mississippi.”