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Trial concludes in Kentucky abortion clinic case

September 08, 2017 - 3:43 PM

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A high-stakes trial that could decide an abortion clinic's fate ended Friday, but the suspense over whether Kentucky becomes the first state without an abortion facility will go on for months.

After three days of testimony and legal wrangling, attorneys in the case were given 60 days to submit post-trial briefs to U.S. District Judge Greg Stivers, who heard the trial without a jury.

EMW Women's Surgical Center, the last abortion clinic in Kentucky, is challenging a state law requiring abortion clinics to have agreements with a hospital and an ambulance service in case of medical emergencies. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky joined the challenge.

After the trial, ACLU attorney Brigitte Amiri said the state's legal team failed to present "a shred of evidence" that so-called transfer agreements with hospitals enhance patient safety.

Steve Pitt, the state's lead attorney, saw it differently, saying neither Planned Parenthood nor EMW "came close" to presenting the evidence needed to have the law struck down.

For EMW, the case revolves around a licensing fight that began in March when Gov. Matt Bevin's administration claimed the clinic lacked proper transfer agreements and took steps to shut it down. The clinic countered with a federal lawsuit to prevent the state from revoking its license, arguing that doing so would violate a woman's constitutional right to an abortion.

Stivers previously blocked the clinic's closure to allow the dispute to be heard at trial. If the state prevails, EMW's lawyers say Kentucky could become the nation's first state without an abortion clinic.

Planned Parenthood claims that Bevin's administration has used those transfer agreements to block its request for a license to provide abortions in Louisville. The Republican governor is an outspoken abortion opponent.

Karen Johnson-McKewan, a Planned Parenthood attorney, said the trial showed it made a "herculean effort" to obtain required transfer agreements but was "blocked at every turn."

"The way this administration has enforced the statute is an undue burden on women's right to choose in the commonwealth of Kentucky," Johnson-McKewan told reporters.

Planned Parenthood official Patti Stauffer testified the group approached several hospitals but to no avail. The organization claims political pressure from Bevin's administration, along with some hospitals' affiliation with religious groups opposed to abortion, impeded its efforts.

"It just felt like the rules kept changing," Stauffer testified Friday.

In June, Bevin's administration added new requirements to transfer agreements. Plaintiffs' attorneys said the changes were meant to make it harder to get a license for abortions.

Pitt said Planned Parenthood failed to offer "one iota of proof" at trial that Bevin's office applied pressure to block the organization from securing a transfer agreement.

State regulators defend those transfer agreements as safeguards to protect women's health.

Dr. Richard Hamilton, a professor of emergency medicine, testified Friday that transfer agreements promote a "safe handoff" of patients between facilities. Calling medicine a "team sport," he said the agreements help ensure medical records are forwarded promptly.

During cross-examination by an EMW attorney, Hamilton said he was unaware of any academic studies showing that such agreements enhance patient outcomes.

EMW's legal team says it believes the Kentucky case "falls squarely" within a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down Texas regulations that required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and forced clinics to meet certain standards for outpatient surgery.

News from © The Associated Press, 2017
The Associated Press

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