A year and a half after the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, the debate over reproductive freedom continues in the commonwealth. In 2022, Kentuckians rejected a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would have said no right to an abortion exists in that document. And last year, voters reelected Gov. Andy Beshear in part because of his support for rape and incest exceptions to the state’s near-total ban on abortions.
“I don’t believe that the constitutional amendment should be the only gauge that we use in order to determine whether or not Kentuckians favor abortions,” says state Rep. Nancy Tate (R-Brandenburg). “There should never be a circumstance that occurs that should result in the death of an innocent child.”
“When we were talking to Kentuckians, they were fed up with the attacks on abortion care,” says Tamarra Wieder, state director of Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates. “And it’s not just in Louisville and Lexington, it’s across the commonwealth… Kentuckians, families of all ages are angry.”
Now, bills before the General Assembly this session seek to scale back or even reverse Kentucky’s prohibitions on the procedure, provide greater supports for expectant mothers, and educate public school students on human development from the moment of conception.
Allowing Some Women Access to Abortions
Rep. Lindsey Burke (D-Lexington) has filed legislation to end the abortion bans in the state and to protect women who may travel out of state to receive the procedure. Sen. David Yates (D-Louisville) is the sponsor of Senate Bill 99, which would provide exceptions to the state’s ban for victims of rape and incest, and in cases of lethal fetal anomalies. (The current prohibition provides an exception when the life of the mother is at risk.) SB 99 is named for Hadley Duvall, a young Owensboro woman and rape survivor who appeared in gubernatorial campaign ads last year to call for exceptions for victims of sexual violence.
All of those measures have yet to be assigned to committees.
Jackie McGranahan, senior policy strategist for the ACLU of Kentucky, says a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association stated that nearly 24,000 sexual assaults have occurred in Kentucky in the 17 months since the U.S. Supreme Court decision on abortion. That report also said there have been nearly 3,000 pregnancies in the commonwealth as a result of rape in that same time period.
“Where is the dignity in forcing a rape victim to carry the rapist’s pregnancy?” says McGranahan. “If someone wants to continue a pregnancy, I want them to have all of the options available to them. But if they do not, they need to be able to terminate that pregnancy.”
Tate says Hadley Duvall’s story made her angry that the abuse went on for so long, and sad that Duvall had not received the assistance victims need to recover from their trauma. The legislator argues that terminating a pregnancy that results from sexual abuse does nothing to address the original crime.
“Now that woman actually has to carry not only the burden of that attack, but also the burden of losing that child or aborting that child,” says Tate.
But victims process their trauma differently, says Wieder. She contends the state should not limit a woman’s options for moving forward with her life.
“Victims of rape and incest deserve to choose what happens to their body next,” says Wieder. “If they want to have an abortion, you should not be denying them their autonomy again.”
While she acknowledges the barbaric brutality of rape and incest, Kentucky Right to Life Executive Director Addia Wuchner argues that the life borne out of sexual violence has the same value and deserves the same protections as a child conceived by loving parents. She also wonders why the crimes referenced in the JAMA report aren’t being prosecuted.
“If there are that many sexual assaults in Kentucky, we have a problem,” says Wuchner. “We need to be coming together from both sides of the aisle... and saying, ‘What can we do? Why are these crimes and these assaults on women and children occurring here in Kentucky?’”
Helping Mothers Before and After Birth
Lawmakers are also considering legislation to provide more maternal health care as well as emotional, social, and financial support to expectant and new mothers.
In Senate Bill 34, known as the ALPHA Act, Sen. Whitney Westerfield (R-Fruit Hill) proposes health care and child care assistance for low-income families. The measure also calls for housing assistance and college tuition waivers for pregnant women and mothers of young children.
Meanwhile, House Bill 10, a bipartisan “momnibus” bill, seeks to improve maternal health and health insurance access for expectant moms, and expand state assistance to new mothers under the Health Access Nurturing Development Services (HANDS) program.
After the Supreme Court decision, Tate and Wuchner say they and other abortion opponents have worked on legislation to support struggling mothers who may feel like an abortion is their only option. They also hope to improve the state’s maternal mortality rate, which is higher than the national average.
The House Health Services Committee approved HB 10, and it awaits further action by the full House. SB 34 has yet to be heard by the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee. Wuchner, who is a nurse and a former state representative, says she expects the ALPHA Act to be broken into pieces and integrated into other budget bills.
Wieder and McGranahan say they support HB 10 in its current form. Wieder says many of the provisions in that measure are ideas that pro-choice advocates have long endorsed. But they add that the state’s abortion ban and proposals that could stiffen penalties on maternal health providers are driving obstetricians and gynecologists from the commonwealth.
More than half of Kentucky counties have no practicing OB-GYNs, according to Wieder. She says maternal health is diminished when doctors can’t provide the full range of reproductive health services. She also argues that medical students no longer feel safe training here or doctors practicing here because of the abortion ban.
“We have seen maternity wards in Idaho shut down because doctors have left the state based on their bans,” says Wieder. “They have left the state without access and Kentucky is going to follow suit if we don’t reverse course.”
Wuchner says the number of maternal health providers has been an issue in the state long before the abortion ban took effect.
“This has been a challenge in Kentucky for many, many years, the decrease in primary care physicians, internists, and OB-GYNS,” says Wuchner, “especially for our more rural communities.”
Other Reproductive Health Legislation
Tate hopes to address other areas of human reproduction with measures on sex education and perinatal palliative care.
House Bill 346 would require public schools to include fetal growth and human development as part of health classes starting in sixth grade. Tate says this would include showing students a three-minute animated video on fertilization. She says children should learn that human life begins at conception.
“It’s important for us to acknowledge the humanity of the baby in the womb, as opposed to it being a blob,” says Tate.
Opponents say the so-called Baby Olivia Act, named for the animated baby depicted in one educational video, is being pushed in seven states this year. Wieder says she supports comprehensive sex education but questions the medical and scientific accuracy of the video that would be shown to students. She says the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is against the proposal.
“Propaganda like this in the classroom is unacceptable,” says Wieder.
House Bill 467 would require hospitals to offer perinatal palliative care and insurance plans to cover the services. Wuchner says such care should be an option for parents who want to bring a nonviable fetus to term and need help with delivery and the grieving process.
McGranahan says perinatal palliative services already are a standard of care that is covered by insurance. She says she supports the availability of such services but says the state shouldn’t preclude parents from having the option to abort a nonviable fetus.