LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Abortions have been unavailable in Kentucky for months and will likely remain so — unless activists defeat an anti-abortion measure on the Nov. 8 ballot.
“As a constitutional amendment, it’s very rigid and unforgiving,” Beth Kuhn, a volunteer with the Protect Kentucky Access campaign, told a constituent who knocked on his front door on a recent sunny afternoon in Louisville.
Kuhn explained that Amendment 2 would add explicit language to the Kentucky Constitution, stating that it offers no protection for abortion rights.
Activists are appealing to state courts
If passed, Amendment 2 would complicate — if not completely derail — ongoing efforts to repeal the state’s two current abortion bans. These laws offer no exceptions for rape or incest and only narrow exceptions for medical emergencies. They went into effect this summer after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned decades of precedent on abortion rights, including Roe v. Wade.
That left reproductive rights advocates with little recourse outside of Kentucky’s constitution, which they say contains privacy protections that should ensure at least some access to abortion.
We’ll look to Kansas
Now, voters are being asked to consider a measure that would amend the Kentucky Constitution to specifically state that it contains no protections for abortion rights. And reproductive rights activists are drawing inspiration from Kansas, another red state, where voters rejected a similar effort in August.
“In order to restore access to legal abortion in Kentucky, we need to defeat Amendment 2,” says Rachel Sweet, campaign manager for Protect Kentucky Access, an effort to sink the amendment. “And then the plaintiffs have to win in those cases.
In August, Sweet led a successful effort to defeat an anti-abortion amendment in Kansas, where abortions are legal up to 20 weeks. The vote — in another conservative-leaning state — surprised many observers.
Sweet says here in Kentucky, the stakes are even higher.
“In Kansas, we tried to really argue for protecting the status quo and protecting the rights that we had in the Kansas Constitution,” Sweet says. “It’s really about how do we begin to reverse the tide of these really extreme abortion restrictions that we’ve seen?”
Chances of making abortion bans permanent
For Kentuckians who oppose abortion, Amendment 2 offers an opportunity to strengthen the state’s restrictions in the long run.
Addia Wuchner, executive director of Kentucky Right to Life, is the leader of the “Vote Yes” campaign. It points to decades of federal litigation surrounding abortion within Roe v. Wade precedent that legalized abortion statewide from 1973 until this year, and she said she wants to make sure Kentucky doesn’t see protracted abortion ban battles in its state court now.
“We were at 49 years of Roe,” Wuchner says. “No one wants 49 years of drugs from the Kentucky Constitution to get into this battle.”
Public voting on a ballot initiative is difficult to do. However, a 2019 survey by Public Policy Polling found that a majority of Kentuckians support abortion rights and oppose criminalizing the procedure.
Wuchner says the amendment would preserve a neutral state constitution on abortion — which her organization opposes in virtually all circumstances — before voters.
“Let’s talk about something [opponents of the amendment] they’re afraid,” Wuchner says. “They’re afraid they won’t have the right to have women take the lives of their children. Do you think that’s right?”
Wuchner notes that here in Kentucky — as in Kansas — abortion rights supporters have vastly outfunded anti-abortion groups.
But the amendment also has strong support from powerful conservative religious groups, including the Kentucky Catholic Conference and the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
Echoes of an earlier time
Standing on the front lawn of the city, Altia Connor says her faith leads her to a different conclusion when it comes to abortion.
“[People] must answer for themselves to God. But it’s still their right… to their body,” she says.
Connor stands in the sun as a local activist holds up a yard sign that reads: “VOTE NO – Amendment 2.”
Now 71, Connor was a teenager in the 1960s — earlier Roe v. Wade. She remembers girls sometimes taking desperate measures when they got pregnant—especially one girl from her church who died after a botched abortion.
“Now as an adult, I think that young girl didn’t have to die,” she says. “She didn’t have to try these home remedies… if she had another option.
A message to state officials
Once again, Kentuckians don’t have that choice.
Saundra Curry Ardrey, a political scientist at Western Kentucky University, said voters have an opportunity to send a message to state leaders — especially Supreme Court justices — about where they stand on the issue. He notes that the Kentucky Supreme Court is waiting to rule on the future of state abortion bans until after the election.
“I think they’re waiting to see what the will of the people will be,” Ardrey said. “And I would also suspect that a lot of candidates and a lot of legislators in the state are also looking at how Kentucky has become pro-choice, or what the will of the people will be.”