Kentucky Is Latest to Test Whether Red States Will Keep Voting for Abortion Rights

An anti-abortion constitutional amendment identical to one Kansas voters rejected this summer is on Kentucky’s November ballot.

Shefali Luthra, The 19th

Abortion rights protesters in Louisville, Kentucky. (Jon Cherry/GETTY IMAGES)

This story was originally published by The 19th.

When Kansas voted roughly 60% to 40% against a proposal that would have said there was no right to an abortion in the state, the resounding victory suggested that abortion bans are a losing issue. But it wasn’t clear whether that argument could apply to red states beyond Kansas.

Now comes the next test: Kentucky, which is already enforcing a near-total ban on the procedure. 

Voters this month will weigh in on a measure nearly identical to what Kansans rejected. A yes vote would specify that the state’s constitution does not protect the right to an abortion. A no vote would leave the constitution as it is, allowing for the possibility that the state’s Supreme Court could strike down Kentucky’s abortion ban. 

Currently, Kentucky’s abortion providers are challenging the state’s abortion ban in court, but the case is on hold until the election results come in. At the time this article was originally published, the state’s two clinics had already stopped offering abortions, but circumstances may have since changed.

There is so far no public polling available on the race, which has already drawn more than $3 million, with the vast majority of money going to abortion rights organizations. If Kentuckians reject the measure, the result could strengthen the argument that abortion providers are making: Voters of all political stripes oppose laws banning abortion.

It would really drive home the narrative that abortion is a winning issue,” said Tamarra Weider, the state’s director of Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates, an advocacy organization. We have a real opportunity to change what, nationally, people think about Kentucky. And hopefully they’ll reconsider not only abortion rights in Kentucky but look across at those other red states that people don’t invest in.”

It’s an uphill battle. A 2018 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute suggests that Kentucky voters are evenly split on abortion, with about half believing it should be legal in most or all cases and half saying it should be banned in most or all cases. 

I don’t think Kentucky’s voters are as likely to express pro-choice preferences as Kansas voters did,” said Steven Voss, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky who specializes in state politics and voting behavior. Yes, they’re both red states with typical Republican preferences. But the extent to which moral conservatism’ — conservatism on moral and cultural issues —  drives Republican affiliations here is stronger than you see in Kansas.”

But public opinion on abortion appears to have shifted since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and abortion bans moved from a theoretical possibility to concrete reality. Nationally, abortion bans appear less popular than before, and more voters are likely to say abortion should be legal in most or all cases. Bans without exceptions for health, rape or incest are especially unpopular — a pattern abortion rights advocates hope to leverage this fall. 

Polling conducted this summer for the Democratic Governors Association suggested that the vast majority of Kentuckians oppose a total ban on abortion, and that they generally oppose the state’s current law, which prohibits abortions with no exception for cases of rape or incest.

Kentucky has already banned abortion,” said Rachel Sweet, campaign manager for Protect Kentucky Access, an abortion rights coalition opposing the amendment. That being the case is in some ways changing the way I think Kentuckians are feeling about the ballot measure — because they’ve already seen the bad stuff that can happen when you support these extreme abortion restrictions.”

Sweet came to Kentucky this August, after leading the Kansas effort to defeat its proposed constitutional amendment hoping to replicate abortion rights groups’ success in Kansas.

A Planned Parenthood Health Center in Louisville, Kentucky. (Jon Cherry/GETTY IMAGES)

For two red states with Democratic governors, Kentucky and Kansas remain incredibly different. In Kansas, abortion remains legal, and in Kentucky, it is not. Kansas has more registered Republicans. But Kentucky, Voss noted, has a larger share of socially conservative Democrats. There is a deeper running evangelical culture, a group that polling shows is less likely to support abortion access.

Still, Sweet suggested, there may be some similarities in how to approach the issue.

My job is not to convince someone who is adamantly pro-choice that Roe being overturned is bad. That’s not who I’m talking to because that’s a person who is already going to vote,” Sweet said. This campaign is extremely targeted to you if you are somewhere in the middle, because that is most of the country, and it is a voting bloc that is very concerned about the state of affairs at the moment.”

The campaign is still in its early stages. Protect Kentucky Access has begun sending people door to door, and has so far run one TV ad highlighting a woman who could not receive an abortion after a wanted pregnancy developed unspecified medical complications.

Kentucky’s abortion ban technically has an exception if terminating a pregnancy will save the pregnant person’s life. But doctors across the country have reported that, even when abortion bans have life-saving exceptions for the pregnant person, the language is too vague for physicians to feel comfortable providing that care.

The emphasis on medical emergencies is deliberate, Sweet said, and will be a theme of the campaign.

These are the cases that all these extreme restrictions don’t make an exception for,” Sweet said. These laws really do impact situations and circumstances that are universally understandable. These laws are really outside the scope of everyone’s values.”

So far, Yes for Life, Kentucky’s main campaign arm supporting the amendment, has organized rallies across the state in favor of the amendment. It’s not clear what other activities they have planned, and when asked for comment, Yes for Life did not offer further specifics on campaigning, other than to say they are working around the clock” to get people to vote for the amendment.

If the amendment passes, abortion is likely to remain unavailable in Kentucky. There will be few nearby options for people seeking one to travel. Only two of Kentucky’s neighboring states — Virginia and Illinois — do not have abortion bans on the books, though Ohio’s six-week ban and Indiana’s total prohibition are currently blocked by courts. 

If the amendment fails, it’s still not clear what happens next. The state’s courts will still have to weigh in on whether to allow Kentucky’s abortion ban to stay in effect. And even if the state’s abortion ban is struck down, state lawmakers could pursue other restrictions when they return to Frankfort next year.

Shefali Luthra is a health reporter at The 19th covering the intersection of gender and health care. Previously, she was a correspondent at Kaiser Health News, where she spent six years covering national health care and policy.

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