NASHVILLE — A Tennessee sheriff is named in a civil lawsuit after he denied a 29-year-old inmate access to an abortion, saying the woman's life was not in danger and her pregnancy was not the result of a crime, according to recently filed court papers.
The woman, Kei'Choura Cathey, was not released until it was too late for the procedure and had the child in April, the court filing says. Her lawsuit alleges Maury County Sheriff Bucky Rowland illegally denied her access to an abortion, which the nation's top court has protected as a woman's right for decades.
The case, and others around the country, pose questions about what obligations top law enforcement officers have when women who are incarcerated request abortions.
"Courts have generally said prisoners retain their right to access abortion even if they’re incarcerated," said Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney for the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project.
But there's still some gray area, including on questions of who has to pay and whether a judge's order is necessary, because each case is different and presents different circumstances for a judge to consider. Also, the U.S. Supreme Court has not weighed in.
"The U.S. Supreme Court has not spoken on this issue, so we don’t have a definitive answer on some of these questions," Amiri said. "Because different cases raise different facts, it’s a little bit of a patchwork."
More than 10 years ago, in a controversial Knoxville, Tenn., case, a federal judge allowed an inmate temporary release to get an abortion, saying the woman had a constitutional right to the procedure. And in 2008 the nation's top court let stand a ruling out of Arizona that overturned a county policy banning off-site elective procedures.
Amiri and the ACLU brought that legal challenge in Arizona. The national civil rights organization is not involved in the pending case against Maury County.
A highly publicized case in 2015 in Alabama detailed a sheriff's refusal to allow a 29-year-old inmate to have the procedure, saying she needed a court order. The ensuing legal battle ended in federal court when the woman decided to keep the child, according to media reports.
Cathey was arrested in July 2015 on robbery and murder conspiracy charges and found out weeks later she was pregnant, according to the lawsuit. Police records from Columbia, Tenn., say she and three others lured Javontay Garrett to a home to steal drugs and money and then fatally shot him.
Weeks later Cathey told Rowland, via her lawyer, that she wanted to have an abortion, but Rowland responded that he would not provide funding or transportation for the procedure, the lawsuit states. Rowland said that would not happen unless the abortion was "medically necessary to save the mother's life or the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest," according to the lawsuit.
The sheriff did not return an email and several calls seeking comment, and the county has not yet responded to the lawsuit. In an email Tuesday, Cathey's lawyer, Lee Brooks, said he is unable to comment on the pending case.
Brooks said in the lawsuit he attempted to get a lower bond, but by the time Cathey was able to post that amount it was January 2016 and too late to have the procedure. The lawsuit does not say whether Cathey also asked a judge to allow her release; a court clerk said no such motion was in the court file.
The child was born about three months after Cathey was able to post bond and was released, according to the lawsuit. According to the Tennessee Department of Corrections, she is no longer in custody and is serving a sentence of probation until 2022.
The case was filed Dec. 29 in federal court in Nashville. It argues that the sheriff's denial, and his failure to have department policies that allowed access to abortions, inflicted cruel and unusual punishment on Cathey in violation of her Eighth Amendment rights. It also says Cathey's civil rights and 14th Amendment rights to due process were violated.
Cathey wants a judge to order the sheriff and Maury County
Now, she wants a judge to order the sheriff and Maury County to pay her $1.5 million in damages.