Kentucky voters asked if there is a right to abortion

Karen Roper was so shaken by the death of Roe v. Wade that she joined the fight for abortion rights in Kentucky, where the future of abortion access could hinge on a constitutional issue before voters this election.

Roper is part of a network of volunteers canvassing neighborhoods looking for votes against the proposal on the Nov. 8 ballot. Kentucky voters are being asked to decide whether to amend the state constitution to clearly state that it does not protect the right to an abortion.

The question reads: “For the protection of human life, nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to guarantee or protect the right to abortion or to require the funding of abortion.”

A 55-year-old mother of two daughters, Roper spent several weekends in October knocking on doors in a central Kentucky town.

“This issue is really beyond a candidate and it’s beyond a political party,” he said. “I felt this was more important than any candidate I might be interested in.”

Heat is running high on both sides. Abortion opponents see the measure as a way to end any constitutional protections for abortion in Kentucky — perhaps settling the long legal battle for good.

“This is a pivotal moment in Kentucky’s history,” said Adia Wuchner, president of the pro-amendment Yes for Life Alliance.

Abortions are currently mostly on hold in Kentucky amid wrangling over the constitutionality of a near-total abortion law. Passed by lawmakers in 2019, the ban went into effect after Roe was overturned. Now the ballot measure has intensified the debate, with donations pouring in, politicians speaking out and supporters on both sides accusing the opposition of misleading voters.

Meanwhile, abortion rights advocates were encouraged by developments this summer in another conservative state, Kansas, where voters rejected a measure that would have changed the state constitution to allow lawmakers to tighten restrictions or ban abortions.

“In a very real sense, what’s at stake is any future path to restoring access to legal abortion in the commonwealth,” said Rachel Sweet of Protect Kentucky Access, an abortion rights coalition.

Kentucky’s constitutional battle has been raging since the Republican-dominated legislature last year held a position on the abortion measure this election cycle.

The stakes are high. In June, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and as a result, abortions are on hold in Kentucky — with one small exception — as the state’s highest court reviews the law that halted the procedures.

University of Louisville student Helene Senn, part of the door-knocking campaign supporting the amendment, said abortion opponents cannot let this opportunity “slip away from us.” The Roe decision gave her additional motivation.

“I knew there was a bigger opportunity to make that much of an impact in our state,” Senn, 20, said.

Abortion rights advocates are using the ban to seek to broaden opposition to the amendment. That law called for an immediate end to nearly all abortions once Roe was overturned, except for abortions to save a pregnant woman’s life or to prevent disabling injury. There are no exceptions for victims of rape or incest.

“For a lot of people, that’s shocking to hear … even people who have really complicated feelings about abortion, they think there should be exceptions,” Sweet said.

Abortion opponents say passage of the amendment would ensure that abortion policy comes from the legislature — where they say it belongs — not the courts.

“Practically speaking, this … will keep state judges in their lane interpreting the law and not inventing new laws and new rights that the constitution doesn’t speak to,” said Republican state Rep. Nancy Tate, a leading voice against abortions.

The enabling law is being challenged by Kentucky’s two remaining abortion clinics — both in Louisville, the state’s largest city. The lawsuit said the women were being “forced to remain pregnant against their will” in violation of the state constitution. The Kentucky Supreme Court upheld the ban while it considered the case, ready to hear arguments after the election. The lawsuit also challenges another state law that bans abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy.

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who has called the enabling law extreme, said a vote on the amendment would weigh heavily on the court case.

“There is no doubt that this constitutional amendment will keep this enabling law in place if it passes,” Beshear said. “If it fails, then the Kentucky Supreme Court will review this enabling law and determine whether it is constitutional.”

The abortion amendment has overshadowed other campaigns in a state where the GOP won full control of the legislature in 2016.

Abortion rights advocates see the measure as an opportunity to reverse the anti-abortion momentum that has led to several restrictions and conditions passed by lawmakers on abortion, many of which have sparked court challenges. They say the legislature’s tough stance on abortion is why constitutional protection is necessary.

Abortion opponents say anti-abortion bills passed in recent years reflect the will of Kentuckians.

“Kentuckians value life. They value the life of the unborn child,” said Wuchner, a former legislator and executive director of Kentucky Right to Life.

Tate said the Legislature can debate abortion legislation “whenever it’s in session.” That could include bills to expand exceptions to the abortion ban, where disagreement would likely emerge among Republicans.

“I don’t support exemptions,” Republican state Sen. Whitney Westerfield told a recent rally of anti-abortion lawmakers. “God made each of us in his own image. He knew us before He formed us in the womb. This is a religious and religious question for me.”

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Associated Press writer Dylan Lovan contributed his report from Louisville, Kentucky.

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