Kentucky Supreme Court keeps abortion ban in place

Ruling comes months after arguments heard

By: - February 16, 2023 11:30 am
abortion, amendment 2

“Bans off our bodies” balloons decorated the Protect Kentucky Access election night watch party on Nov. 8, 2022, in Louisville. Kentuckians rejected an anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution. The state Supreme Court has allowed the near-total ban on abortion to remain in force. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Arden Barnes)

Justice Debra Hembree Lambert

The Kentucky Supreme Court has ruled against an ACLU request to uphold an injunction that had briefly reinstated access to abortion in Kentucky. 

That means the commonwealth’s six-week abortion ban will remain intact as the case is litigated. 

The high court decision came down Thursday more three months after arguments on the issue were heard on Nov. 15. Under it, EMW Women’s Surgical Center and Planned Parenthood in Louisville cannot resume abortion services at 15 weeks of pregnancy. 

Justice Debra Hembree Lambert penned the 144-page opinion. It’s a win for the Attorney General’s office, which argued against the ACLU. 

“After thorough review, we hold that the abortion providers lack third- party standing to challenge the statutes on behalf of their patients,” the opinion states. “Notwithstanding, the abortion providers have first-party, constitutional standing to challenge one of the statutes on their own behalf. We affirm the Court of Appeals’ holding that the circuit court abused its discretion by granting the abortion providers’ motion for a temporary injunction and remand to the circuit court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.” 

Justices Robert Conley and Christopher Nickel concurred. Justice Laurance Vanmeter concurred with results only. Justices Angela McCormick Bisig, Michelle Keller and Kelly Thompson concurred in part and dissented in part. 

Justice Angela McCormick Bisig

In her partial dissent, Bisig wrote that “put simply, the decision removes a forum for a balancing of the two important competing interests at issue in this case – the state’s interest in the protection of unborn life and a woman’s interest in bodily autonomy and self-determination.” 

‘Fight is not over.’

Organizations and leaders on both sides of the abortion debate took Thursday’s ruling as an opportunity to say their work is not over.

Attorney General Daniel Cameron praised the decision, calling it a “significant victory.” 

“We will continue to stand up for the unborn by defending these laws,” he said. 

The ACLU of Kentucky, meanwhile, promised to keep working for abortion access.

“We are extremely disappointed in today’s decision, but we will never give up the fight to restore bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom in Kentucky,” the nonprofit said on social media. But: “This fight is not over.”

Kentucky Right to Life, an anti-abortion organization, said this is an example of “how democracy should work.”

“We clearly understand that the battle is far from over,” said Addia Wuchner, the executive director, in a statement. She added that the goal is to “make abortion unthinkable.”

Senate President Robert Stivers echoed this, calling the decision the ruling “encouraging.”

But, he said: “I recognize there is still work to be done…”

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear. (Photo for Kentucky Lantern by Arden Barnes)

The commonwealth isn’t alone in its strict abortion laws. Most of Kentucky’s neighbors have also banned or restricted abortion access. The nearest state in which abortion is accessible is Illinois, according to Planned Parenthood.

Kentucky House Democrat Leaders condemned the ruling.

“The current effective abortion ban is having a profoundly negative impact on women’s reproductive health, putting lives needlessly at risk and forcing many to take steps they shouldn’t have to,” Derrick Graham, Cherlynn Stevenson and Rachel Roberts said in a joint statement.

Abortion, they added, “had been a constitutional right for almost 50 years, and it has only been three months since Kentucky voters soundly rejected efforts to block potential constitutional protections here. Those two things should mean something.”

Gov. Andy Beshear, who’s said on record many times that he believes people who became pregnant because of rape or incest should have the option to get abortion, also criticized the ruling Thursday.

“Victims of rape and incest” in Kentucky, he said, “have fewer rights than their rapists.”


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Sarah Ladd
Sarah Ladd

Sarah Ladd is a Louisville-based journalist from West Kentucky who's covered everything from crime to higher education. She spent nearly two years on the metro breaking news desk at The Courier Journal. In 2020, she started reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic and has covered health ever since. As the Kentucky Lantern's health reporter, she focuses on mental health, LGBTQ+ issues, children's welfare, COVID-19 and more.