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With Ky. banning most abortions, some Louisville officials want to limit local enforcement

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J. Tyler Franklin
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Some Louisville officials would like to see police forgo enforcing Kentucky’s near-total ban on abortion, which went into effect Friday after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in a 6-3 decision.

Because the Kentucky legislature passed a so-called “trigger law” in 2019, the court’s decision effectively made most abortions illegal across the state. Louisville’s two abortion clinics, the EMW Women’s Surgical Center and Planned Parenthood’s Health Center, immediately stopped providing abortion services on Friday.

Local officials, particularly Democrats, reacted to the news with frustration and anger over the decision.

District 8 Council Member Cassie Chambers Armstrong took it a step further, saying she wants Louisville to explore making enforcement of the abortion ban a lower level priority for police.

“I think we will never be in a position where this should be a priority for our law enforcement, because I believe people should always have the ability to make choices about their own health care needs,” she said. “But certainly, given our challenges around poverty and violence, that we would spend any of our very limited local resources to investigate doctors … would be shocking.”

Chambers Armstrong, a Democrat representing the Highlands neighborhood, said she thinks Louisville should look to places like Washington, D.C. and Oakland, Ca. that have already pledged to become “choice sanctuary zones.” She also noted that the Louisville Metro Police Department is currently short nearly 300 officers and is dealing with record-breaking numbers of shootings and homicides.

Under the state’s abortion ban, known as the Human Life Protection Act, it is now a Class D felony for anyone to provide procedural or medication abortions. The only exceptions are for when it’s medically necessary to save the life of the pregnant patient or to prevent “the permanent impairment of a life-sustaining organ.”

The law subjects the person performing the abortion to criminal liability, not the pregnant person. It also bans doctors or abortion rights groups from providing people with abortion pills.

At least one other Metro Council Democrat agreed that local officials should consider encouraging police not to prioritize enforcement of the ban.

Council President David James, a former LMPD officer who represents a district that includes parts of the West End and Old Louisville, said he believed police officers’ time would be better spent elsewhere.

“We have a lot of problems going on in our city,” he said. “For the local government to get between women and their doctor, I don’t think it should be one of our priorities, quite frankly.”

Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, Democratic candidate for mayor Craig Greenberg also weighed in on enforcement. He pledged that LMPD “will not be the enforcement arm of a ban on reproductive healthcare,” if he’s elected.

“As Mayor, I will do everything within the city’s power to limit the damage of this decision,” he said in a statement.

Jeffersontown Mayor Bill Dieruf, a Republican running against Greenberg, issued a statement late Friday that did not directly address the issue of local enforcement. Instead, Dieruf said he planned to leave the issue up to state and federal elected officials.

“I talk to citizens of Louisville everyday who have concerns about community issues that are directly related to what the Mayor of Louisville can and should do,” he said. “Key issues citizens of Louisville are concerned about are safety for all neighborhoods, economic development and jobs, and education to ensure bright futures for all Louisville residents.”

Dieruf added that he understands the “strong emotions on both sides of the abortion issue.”

The city’s next mayor will take office in January.

How would it work?

Supporters of limiting local enforcement in Louisville say there are two routes to getting there: Metro Council could approve a resolution or the mayor could exercise their authority over the police department.

The Metro Council route is not without precedent. In 2019, the body voted 15-10 to approve an ordinance making adult possession of marijuana for personal use “the city’s lowest law enforcement priority.” Two months later, Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell announced his office would no longer prosecute the lowest-level marijuana offenses.

Chambers Armstrong said the 2019 ordinance could be a model for pushing back against Kentucky’s abortion ban.

“We do still have prosecutorial discretion in government, which means we get to decide, of all of the problems facing us, what are we going to put our resources toward,” she said.

It’s not entirely clear what that kind of approach would look like in practice when it comes to abortion providers, but LMPD has made policy changes in the past that discourage officers from responding to certain emergency calls. It’s been department policy since 2020 not to respond to roadway crashes without injuries, for example.

Metro Council is currently on a three-week summer break. Chambers Armstrong said she plans to research what other local governments are doing following the Dobbs decision and speak with her colleagues about putting legislation together.

But it’s unclear if there would be enough support among the 26-member body for that.

District 19’s Anthony Piagentini, who heads Council’s Republican Caucus, said the marijuana enforcement resolution was ultimately approved because there was widespread support in the community. The issue of abortion access, he said, is much more divisive.

“I would be against it and I think there would be a bipartisan group against it,” he said. “I don’t even think there’d be unanimity within the Democratic Caucus if they try to pass a resolution like that.”

Responding to the statement from Greenberg, Piagentini also said Democrats should be cautious when deciding to pick and choose which laws they want to enforce. With the mayoral election coming up in November, he said the roles could conceivably be reversed.

“If there is a law which he or his political allies disagrees with and that Republican chief executive decides to ignore it or completely de-prioritizes it, then they need to be ready to say ‘Well, that’s their prerogative,’” he said.

Piagentini added that he sees Democratic support de-prioritizing local enforcement as “performative,” since it’s not clear whether LMPD will even be asked to conduct those kinds of investigations. Any ordinance or police department policy in Louisville would not apply to the Kentucky State Police, an independent agency that answers to a commissioner and the governor.

Even without the support of Metro Council, the mayor could choose to de-prioritize enforcement of the abortion bans unilaterally. In Louisville, the mayor is the police department’s highest executive and has the power to hire and fire top leadership.

Mayor Greg Fischer issued a statement Friday morning, saying he was “disgusted” by the Supreme Court decision.

“The Justices have ignored precedent and the wishes of the vast majority of Americans, and their decision makes women second-class citizens in their own country,” Fischer said.

Notably absent, however, was any statement about enforcement. Follow up questions sent to Fischer’s office about whether he supports de-prioritizing investigations into violations of the abortion ban have so far gone unanswered.

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