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An abortion ban in Kentucky could impact local economies, experts say

Photo by J. Tyler Franklin

A permanent change in reproductive health care access could inhibit women’s ability to participate in the workforce and affect where businesses choose to operate, a top Louisville economic development official said.

“In Louisville we strongly support people’s right to make choices about their health care, and at Louisville Forward we know that these kinds of actions impact our workforce,” said Jeff O’Brien, chief of the city’s economic development agency Louisville Forward, in an emailed statement.

Almost all abortions could be banned in Kentucky. After the United States Supreme Court struck down the landmark Roe v. Wade on June 24, Kentucky’s “trigger law” banning most abortions in the state immediately took effect.

On Thursday, a Louisville judge issued a restraining order temporarily blocking the law. But it is unclear if or how long that will stay in place.

As a branch of Metro Government, Louisville Forward promotes business and financial growth. O’Brien suggested Louisville could be adversely affected by Kentucky’s ban.

“We have consistently heard from site selectors and national experts that when companies are looking to locate or expand, they want to do so in places that align with their corporate values and those of their employees,” O’Brien said.

“Women make up half of our workforce, and if they don’t have access to safe and affordable healthcare and access to choice, their ability to participate fully in the workforce is limited, and we can expect it to impact the decisions companies make about where they locate their businesses.”

Companies and states have in the past cut ties over legislation they say is discriminatory, as in 2017 when California’s attorney general banned official state travel to Kentucky over a law opponents said allowed student organizations to discriminate against classmates based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

North Carolina’s 2016 “bathroom bill” that blocked local protections for LGBTQ people and regulated which bathrooms they could use in government facilities was estimated to cost the state more than $3.7 billion in lost business over 12 years.

Local politicians, activists and residents say they’re angry and frustrated at the end of federal protections for abortion access because of the harm it will cause to pregnant people and those who don’t wish to be pregnant. Mayor Greg Fischer said he was “absolutely disgusted” by the removal of reproductive choice.

Kentucky’s legislature passed a “trigger law” in 2019 that banned almost all abortions in the state, with limited exceptions for the health and mortality of the pregnant person.

In the days following the federal ruling, more than a dozen large companies across the country have pledged to cover employees’ costs if they have to travel for abortion services. For Kentuckians, Illinois is now the only neighboring state where access to abortion is enshrined in law as a right. Virginia will also offer abortion services in some cases, according to reproductive health policy think tank the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights.

A spokesperson for Louisville Forward declined to comment beyond the emailed statement about what concerns its leaders have about what the ruling means for the city. The agency’s Twitter account had earlier retweeted Fischer’s statements criticizing the Supreme Court’s reversal.

Experts disagree on economic risk

Ken Troske, the endowed chair of economics at the University of Kentucky, said the state’s ban may not have a strong effect on a business’s decision on where to locate.

He said it’s possible companies deciding where to do business may put more consideration into workforce quality and the cost of wages than access to abortion.

“Kentucky had done some things recently that tend to make it, seemingly, a more desirable place for businesses to locate,” Troske said, referencing recent changes such as Kentucky becoming a “right-to-work” state and its Supreme Court blocking cities from raising local minimum wages.

“This seemingly would push the opposite direction,” he said of the abortion ban. “How big of an impact it has is going to be hard to say.”

Kentucky tends to attract blue-collar businesses, whereas white-collar companies and employees would be more likely to value abortion access in choosing where to work, Troske said.

“Amazon is locating distribution centers here, but it's not like we're getting the new headquarters from Amazon that Nashville has been able to attract,” he said. “And so does this really change the consideration of businesses for locating in Kentucky?”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about a third of Kentuckians are employed in either the manufacturing or trade, transportation, and utilities sectors. Both feature a large number of blue-collar jobs.

Josh Pinkston, an associate professor of economics at the University of Louisville, said there are economic reasons to be concerned about the state’s abortion ban.

It will affect women’s abilities to pursue an education or career, he said, which would reduce the number of skilled workers in the labor force.

“It's not just a matter of corporate values. Even if the corporation doesn't care, what they will care about is the quality and availability of skilled workers. And this is definitely going to have repercussions for the quality of Kentucky's and Louisville's labor force,” Pinkston said.

He added that all companies need some amount of skilled workers, and said the ban would harm the Commonwealth’s ability to bring in new companies.

“If Kentucky doesn't have the labor force that businesses want, it's going to be a less attractive state. And so, on top of the health consequences for women in Kentucky, this is big government regulation that's reducing the competitiveness of our state,” he said.

Last year Kentucky’s Chamber of Commerce published a report finding the state had the third-lowest workforce participation rate in the country. It also found the rate for women in the state trended about 10 points lower than for men.

Jacob is LPM's Business and Development Reporter. Email Jacob at jmunoz@lpm.org.

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