Politics & Government

‘Fetal heartbeat’ bill banning abortion in Kentucky at six weeks is nearly law

A bill that would ban abortion in Kentucky after a fetal heartbeat can be detected — about six weeks into a woman’s pregnancy — is nearing the end of the legislative process.

Senate Bill 9 on Wednesday easily cleared the House Committee on Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection and proceeds to the full House. The Senate voted 31-to-6 to pass it on Feb. 14. The bill is sponsored by state Sen. Mike Castlen, R-Owensboro.

Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican and vocal critic of abortion, has signed previous bills and issued executive orders placing new limits on the procedure.

The ACLU of Kentucky — which is successfully challenging several of the state’s recent abortion restrictions with lawsuits in federal court — told lawmakers the group immediately would sue over the fetal heartbeat ban if it becomes law. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that a woman’s right to privacy guarantees her control over her pregnancy during the first trimester.

But lawmakers who oppose abortion said they welcome another legal battle. As the Supreme Court becomes more conservative with nominees chosen by Republican President Donald Trump and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., it is more likely that Roe v. Wade will be overturned, and a Kentucky case could play a role in that, they said.

At Wednesday’s hearing, lawmakers heard a fetal heartbeat from a pregnant woman’s ultrasound conducted at the witness table and they listened to the personal story of Claire Culwell, a motivational speaker who said she survived her mother’s attempts to abort her 31 years ago. The procedure left her with injuries including a club foot and hip displacement, Culwell said.

“I wanted to show you my face. I wanted to show you the face of an abortion survivor,” Culwell said. “We can talk about women’s rights, but my rights were just as important as my birth mother’s rights.”

Speaking against the bill were several people, including a Louisville obstetrician, who said a small group of mostly male state legislators should not interfere with the medical decisions of all reproductive-age Kentucky women.

James Earley of Lexington told about the loss of a wanted pregnancy two years ago. Early said he and his partner, Heather, received devastating news about a chromosomal abnormality a little more than 18 weeks into the pregnancy that was certain to prove fatal to their unborn child — and potentially dangerous to Heather if she hemorrhaged during the miscarriage that was likely to come.

However, when the couple requested an abortion at their hospital, they were denied because the hospital followed Catholic religious practices and typically would not allow an abortion after a fetal heartbeat could be detected, Earley said. At the same time, he added, the Kentucky legislature had just enacted a ban on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy that was about to take effect.

The couple had a stillborn child in February 2017, he said.

“Pregnancy is not uncomplicated. This is a thing that happens more often than most of us realize,” Earley said. “I urge you to consider how little we know about abortion, how little we really know about the circumstances that bring people to the clinics, to the hospitals, in desperate need of health care.”

The Senate bill is only one of a half-dozen filed this legislative session to restrict access to abortion.

Among the others, House Bill 5 would ban abortion in Kentucky for women seeking to end pregnancies because of their unborn child’s sex, race, color, national origin or disability detected by prenatal screening, such as Down syndrome or disfigurement. The full House passed it Tuesday. And House Bill 148 would ban abortion in Kentucky if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. The House passed it 69-to-20 on Feb. 15.

John Cheves is a government accountability reporter at the Lexington Herald-Leader. He joined the newspaper in 1997 and previously worked in its Washington and Frankfort bureaus and covered the courthouse beat.
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