Democratic Kentucky Gov. Andrew Beshear vetoed a bill on Friday that would have allowed the Republican attorney general to potentially restrict abortion access during the coronavirus outbreak as well as requiring doctors to try to preserve the life of any infant born alive following an attempted abortion.
Beshear said in a veto message that he had done so “because existing Kentucky law already fully protects children from being denied life-saving medical care and treatment when they are born,” pointing to similar bills that “have been struck down as unconstitutional in the majority of states in America when challenged.”
When asked about the veto Friday during a news conference on the state’s coronavirus response, Beshear said, “I’m just not doing divisive issues right now, we’ve got to defeat this coronavirus.”
He added that the potential legal action against the measure, which “would be pulling people one way or another, creating discord in the middle of a time where we’ve got to be together, I just didn’t think was the right direction for us to go.”
The bill, which was approved by Republican majorities in the state’s House and Senate earlier this month, says that “a physician performing an abortion shall take all medically appropriate and reasonable steps to preserve the life and health of a born-alive infant.” Violation of the requirements could have been used in “a civil action for compensatory and punitive damages” as well as resulted in “the automatic suspension” of the health care provider’s license “for a period of at least one year.”
Opponents have argued that such measures restrict abortion access by threatening health care providers. It is already homicide in the US to intentionally kill an infant that is born alive.
But the bill could also have had timely impacts on abortion access during the coronavirus crisis. It would have allowed the state’s attorney general to pursue legal action against abortion facilities to “prevent, penalize, and remedy violations” of abortion regulations – a move that, currently requiring approval from the secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, would have ceded power from the governor’s office.
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a Republican, had called for Beshear to sign the bill, calling it “both necessary and timely” in light of the governor’s order last month restricting elective surgeries during the coronavirus outbreak.
Cameron has called for the order to apply to elective abortions, while Beshear said last month that “I leave it to our health professionals to determine what falls in the elective or the essential.” Multiple states have issued similar orders under the argument of conserving personal protective equipment to fight the coronavirus outbreak, with some applying to elective abortions and facing legal challenges from state abortion providers and national abortion rights groups.
Beshear isn’t the first Democratic governor in a conservative state to push back on such a bill. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a similar one last year, saying it was an “unnecessary interference between doctors and their patients” and would “criminalize doctors and other healthcare providers for a practice that simply does not exist.”
Kentucky has been in the abortion spotlight before. Last year, the state passed a bill outlawing abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected – as early as six weeks into a pregnancy – that former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin signed in March 2019.
The ban includes exceptions to prevent the death or “a serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman,” but not for rape or incest. A federal judge temporarily blocked it after the American Civil Liberties Union challenged it in court.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the name of Kentucky’s attorney general.