Supreme Court Allows Kentucky Abortion Ultrasound Requirement to Stand

The Supreme Court declined this week to take up a challenge of a Kentucky law that requires women who are seeking an abortion to watch an ultrasound and listen to a fetal heartbeat. 

The Supreme Court declined this week to take up a challenge of a Kentucky law that requires women who are seeking an abortion to watch an ultrasound and listen to a fetal heartbeat.  Shutterstock

 

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The law requires women who seek abortions to view a narrated ultrasound before the procedure, even if they don’t want one.

The Supreme Court declined this week to take up a challenge of a Kentucky law that requires women who are seeking an abortion to watch an ultrasound and listen to a fetal heartbeat. 

That means the law, originally passed in 2017 but on hold during court challenges, will now go into effect. The law requires doctors to perform an ultrasound and narrate the images and sounds for patients. Women who object to the process are not allowed to seek an abortion. Women are only allowed to avert their eyes or request for the volume to be lowered. 

Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican who recently lost reelection to Democrat Andy Beshear, had championed the law. He received the favorable news from the Supreme Court on Monday, his last day in office. 

“Kentucky has become a national leader in implementing strong pro-life protections,” he said in a statement. “Patients should be well equipped with relevant information before making important medical decisions.”

Doctors who will be required to abide by the law have objected to the requirements. 

Ashlee Bergin, an OBGYN at the University of Louisville, earlier this year wrote an op-ed about the ultrasound mandate, calling it “humiliating” and unnecessary for patients, especially those who are victims of sexual assault and those whose fetuses have been diagnosed with a condition that makes their survival untenable. “We have had patients burst into tears when we tell them that they must undergo an unwanted narrated ultrasound and that they must close their eyes and cover their ears if they want to avoid the speech Kentucky politicians insist we force upon them,” she wrote. 

The law was first challenged in 2017 and struck down by a district court. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision earlier this year, finding the law constitutional. 

The case brought against the Kentucky law is different from other lawsuits that have emerged in the wave of anti-abortion laws passed by states in recent years. In this case, the challenge was that the law violated the free speech rights of doctors and not about patients’ rights. 

“The coercive effects of the speech are magnified when the physician is compelled to deliver the state’s preferred message in his or her own voice. [The Act] treads … heavily on the physicians’ free speech rights,” reads the petition filed with the court by EMW Women’s Surgical Center, the state’s only abortion clinic. 

The American Public Health Association supported overturning of the law, saying that requiring the physician to narrate ultrasound images “even if the patient requests the physician to stop, damages public trust in the medical profession by communicating to the patient that the physician is not concerned about the patient’s well-being or autonomy.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, as well as several other professional medical associations, also petitioned the court against the requirements. 

The Bevin administration argued that while they had no data on the number of women who regret their abortions, officials believe it is not insignificant. In those cases, “being shown an ultrasound image of their fetus and receiving a description of that image would have been helpful to them in determining whether to have an abortion and would have helped them avoid the mental anguish that they later suffered upon realizing that they had made ill-informed decisions to abort their children,” the state argued.

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty. 

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