LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear an appeal of a Kentucky law requiring doctors to perform ultrasounds and show and describe fetal images to patients before abortions, as well as play an audible heartbeat of the fetus.

The justices did not comment in refusing to review an appeals court ruling that upheld the 2017 law after it was previously struck down as a violation of the constitutional right to free speech. The refusal leaves the law in place.

The American Civil Liberties Union had challenged the law on behalf of Kentucky’s lone remaining abortion clinic, EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville. The ACLU argued the law has no medical basis and that its whose sole purpose is to shame and coerce a woman who has decided to end her pregnancy.

“By refusing to review the 6th Circuit’s ruling, the Supreme Court has rubber-stamped extreme political interference in the doctor-patient relationship,” Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, said Monday. “This law is not only unconstitutional, but as leading medical experts and ethicists explained, deeply unethical.”

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Conservative majority in Supreme Court

The refusal to hear the case comes as the Supreme Court now has a 5-4 conservative majority, which could impact abortion cases. In recent years, Republican-sponsored measures to limit abortion have been enacted in a number of states.

Kentucky’s 2017 ultrasound law marked the beginning of a wave of anti-abortion legislation that began after Republicans seized control of the Kentucky House, which continued through the 2019 legislative session with four major bills passed aimed at restricting or eliminating abortion in Kentucky. Some have been blocked by the courts.

Monday’s decision also marked a win on the last day in office for Gov. Matt Bevin, an anti-abortion Republican who had aggressively defended the law after it was struck down by U.S. District Judge David Hale the same year it was passed.

The law was “intended to dissuade women from choosing abortion by forcing ultrasound images, detailed descriptions of the fetus and the sounds of the fetal heartbeat on them, against their will, at a time when they are most vulnerable,” Hale wrote in a 30-page opinion.

Bevin’s general counsel argued that the law was meant to protect women who might regret abortions or may not fully understand the procedure. In past legal filings, Hale has said EMW offered women the chance to see such images but it wasn’t mandated. 

In April, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law on a 2-1 vote. Judge John Bush, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, wrote for the court that the law didn’t violate the Constitution and provided “relevant information.”

“The information conveyed by an ultrasound image, its description and the audible beating fetal heart gives a patient a greater knowledge of the unborn life inside her,” he wrote. “This also inherently provides the patient with more knowledge about the effect of an abortion procedure: it shows her what or whom she is consenting to terminate.” 

Reporter Chris Kenning can be reached at ckenning@gannett.com or followed on Twitter: @chris_kenning.

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