(Reuters) - A federal judge on Friday struck down a Kentucky law requiring abortion providers to sign advance agreements with hospitals and ambulance services for emergency patient care, in a ruling that keeps the state from revoking the license of its only remaining abortion clinic.
U.S. District Judge Greg Stivers in Louisville sided with the EMW Women’s Surgical Center and Planned Parenthood in challenging a law that threatened to make Kentucky the first U.S. state without a single legal abortion provider.
“This decision keeps open the doors of the only health center in Kentucky that provides safe and legal abortion care,” Planned Parenthood said in a statement.
The Louisville clinic filed suit last year claiming that Governor Matt Bevin, a self-described “unapologetically pro-life” Republican, was using the law unfairly to terminate its license, following a 2016 licensing battle that forced the shutdown of a Lexington clinic.
Planned Parenthood joined in the suit, asserting that the state was likewise blocking its application for a license to begin offering abortion services at a new clinic in Louisville.
Bevin has argued that requirements for clinics to keep so-called transfer and transport agreements, stipulated under a 1998 law, were meant to protect women should complications arise during abortion procedures.
But plaintiffs countered that hospitals were already legally bound to accept any patient in an emergency and that local fire and rescue departments will transport patients without such agreements.
Christie Gillespie, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, said the governor had in effect turned what had been a routine licensing requirement into an obstacle by putting pressure on hospitals to deny transfer agreements with abortion providers.
Planned Parenthood said the state threatened in March of 2017 to revoke EMW’s license by citing alleged technical deficiencies in its transfer and transport agreements that had been approved a year earlier.
Following a three-day trial last September, the judge ruled that the law and its requirements violated the plaintiffs’ substantive due process rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The opinion was accompanied by a permanent injunction barring enforcement of those restrictions.
There was no immediate comment from Kentucky’s governor on whether he would seek an appeal.
The case could test interpretations of a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down parts of a Texas law requiring abortion clinics to meet hospital-like standards and for clinic doctors to have admitting privileges in nearby hospitals.
A requirement for admitting privileges in Louisiana was upheld on Wednesday in a 2-1 ruling from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Abortion has been a central issue in the U.S. Senate confirmation battle over President Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, a judicial conservative who abortion rights advocates worry could tip the high court in favor of further restrictions.
Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Clive McKeef