On Monday, the US Supreme Court announced that it will not review a case brought against the state of Kentucky by its last remaining abortion clinic. The case, EMW Women’s Surgical Center v. Meier, stands against a 2017 law that requires doctors to show and describe in-detail ultrasound images to any woman seeking an abortion — even if she objects. Under this law, any Kentucky woman is required to undergo an ultrasound and see images of a fetus before moving forward with an abortion procedure. And, a refusal to undergo the ultrasound and "consultation" is considered unconstitutional and violates the doctor’s "right to free speech."
The abortion clinic contested this law at a state level, but a panel of the US Court of Appeals for the 6th circuit upheld it on Monday with a final ruling pending the Supreme Court appeal. Now, with the Supreme Court’s refusal to review the case, the law will continue.
But it's the details of this entire case that are cause for major concern. The newly-dubbed “abortion ultrasound” law also requires doctors to make the fetal heartbeat audible to women before the procedure — if they can. And, beyond having to listen to a fetal heartbeat, women are expected to endure a full description of “the presence of external members and internal organs” (i.e. developed body parts). A majority of states require ultrasounds before a woman can obtain an abortion as a type of “informed consent;” however, few states compel the doctor to show or describe the ultrasound under all circumstances.
The appeals panel that revived this particular case claims that it adheres to the medical policy of “informed consent,” which is historically (allegedly) used to empower patients’ rights to bodily autonomy through the provision of accurate and unbiased information. EMW Women’s Surgical Centre in Kentucky refutes that claim, asserting that doctors should not be compelled to provide that information even after a woman refuses it, describing the practice as “designed to convey the state’s ideological, anti-abortion message.”
Judge Bernice Bouie Donald, a district court judge in Tennessee, argued against the law going into effect, saying that it has no regard to the health of the patient or the judgement of the physician. According to Judge Donald as reported by The New York Times, Kentucky “has co-opted the physicians’ examining tables, their probing instruments and their voices in order to espouse a political message.”
But lawyers working on behalf of the state claim that the law is of the utmost importance. “Nothing can better inform a patient of the nature and consequences of an abortion than actually seeing an image of the fetus who will be aborted and receiving a medically-accurate description of that image,” they said in a brief.
This is a pivotal time in the U.S. for abortion laws, as states are eschewing from protecting reproductive rights on a local level. A near-identical law in Texas was dispelled by the court in 2016, citing that it was medically unnecessary and was overtly limiting women’s access an abortion. A different appeals court in North Carolina struck down another almost identical law in its own state. Meanwhile, an abortion bill in Ohio recommends a nearly-impossible procedure, and women who refuse to follow could be charged with “abortion murder.”
This latest installment in reproductive limitations is a clear scare tactic — forcing women to undergo an ultrasound for an unwanted pregnancy is in no way a medical necessity. But it is part of the ongoing, nationwide restrictions on abortion laws.
For Kentucky, a state that has practically eliminated access to a safe abortion, this law represents just another in a mounting list of intentional deterrents being imposed around the country. The Supreme Court, whose membership is now in the conservative majority, refusing to review the case sends a strong message as to its stance on future repeals or the institution of further constraints.