The trial that may make Kentucky the first state in the United States without an abortion clinic began Wednesday in federal court, as advocates sought to keep the state from shutting down the Louisville-based EMW Women’s Surgical Center.
Earlier this year, Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services sent the clinic a letter informing the clinic that it was out of compliance with state regulations that require clinics to have standing agreements with local hospitals and ambulance services to transfer patients in case of medical emergencies. While the clinic technically had such agreements, the cabinet — led by Kentucky’s Republican Gov. Matt Bevin — had found them “deficient.”
That letter showed up “totally out of the blue,” Brigitte Amiri, an attorney with the American Civil Liberty Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project, told VICE News at the time. Yet without the state’s approval of those agreements, EMW would be forced to close.
The ACLU soon sued Kentucky on the clinic’s behalf, alleging that the clinic’s hospital and ambulance agreements have remained virtually unchanged for years. Amiri declared the state’s action “an attempt to ban abortion in Kentucky.”
That lawsuit led a judge to rule that EMW could stay open until litigation over the case ends. That could happen as early as Friday, when the bench trial concludes.
Lawyers for EMW argue that the state is attempting to enforce baseless regulations, pointing to the 2016 Supreme Court ruling in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt. That ruling found that Texas — which had required abortion clinics to have surgical center-level facilities and abortion providers to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals — constituted an “undue burden” on women seeking abortions.
Bevin spokesperson Amanda Stamper told VICE News in a statement that the governor’s administration is “working diligently to protect the health, welfare, and lives of women in Kentucky” and stressed the importance of the state’s health requirements in “ensuring women have the proper life-saving procedures in place in the event of an emergency.”
This isn’t the only case EMW and the Bevin administration are battling over. Earlier this year, the ACLU sued the attorney general over HB2, a new state law requiring doctors to narrate an ultrasound on women seeking abortions. They are awaiting a judge’s final ruling on that case.
Kentucky is just one of seven states that currently only have one operating abortion clinic.
“Bevin is a right-to-life governor, and Kentucky is a right-to-life state, but there have always been plenty of pro-choice people in Kentucky,” Ernest Marshall, a physician and the founder of EMW Women’s Surgical Center, told VICE News in May. “It’s never been smooth sailing. We were always threatened with obstructive laws, but we were never threatened with the possibility of closure.”