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Activists organize ahead of Kentucky constitutional amendment on abortion 

People gathered in downtown Louisville, holding signs with messages to protect abortion access.
Hundreds gathered in downtown Louisville May 4 to speak out for reproductive rights after a U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion was leaked, which shows the court moving toward overturning Roe v Wade this summer.

On Election Day this year, Kentuckians will weigh in on a measure that would make sure abortion rights aren’t protected under the state constitution.

Currently, almost all abortions are illegal in Kentucky. The Republican-led legislature passed a “trigger law” effectively banning the procedure after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Now abortion opponents want to make sure state courts can't codify a right to the procedure under the Kentucky Constitution.

Rachel Sweet is the campaign manager for Protect Kentucky Access, a coalition of abortion rights groups fighting the amendment. She says the U.S. Supreme Court decision has energized people to fight for reproductive rights.

“There are more people now who are working through the shame and stigma of being someone who's had an abortion or a miscarriage and saying, ‘no, my story matters, my story is important.’ That has often been a springboard for getting involved in organizing,” Sweet said.

The group has organized workshops in Kentucky over summer, training volunteers how to build awareness by canvassing neighborhoods and rallying opposition to the amendment online.

Sweet was previously campaign manager for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, the coalition of organizations that fought a similar amendment in the Sunflower State. Nearly 60% of voters in Republican-dominated Kansas rejected that proposal during a referendum this summer.

Abortion rights advocates hope Kentuckians will follow Kansas’ lead. But the language voters will see in Kentucky differs significantly from the defeated proposal.

The Kansas measureexplicitly asked voters to allow lawmakers to regulate abortion, even in cases of rape, incest and when a person’s life is at risk. On the other hand, Kentuckians will see only these 25 words on the ballot:

“To protect human life, nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to secure or protect a right to abortion or require the funding of abortion.

Since the measure would amend the Kentucky Constitution, it has to be approved by both the legislature and a majority of voters during a General Election. The General Assembly passed the proposal in 2021 and now voters will weigh in on Nov. 8.

During her work in Kansas, Sweet said she learned the importance of research and focus groups to identify messaging that would persuade voters who are on the fence.

“In Kansas, we didn’t see this as pro-life or pro-choice issue. We believe that we can find common ground with Kentuckians who are conflicted about abortion, by saying that these are really important personal decisions that the government shouldn't be playing a role in,” she said.

“We need to make sure that people understand what the stakes are of this proposal.”

On the anti-abortion side, Kentucky Right To Life and an alliance of organizations are leading the Yes For Life campaign. The group has held information sessions across the state to rally support for the amendment.

Kentucky Right to Life Executive Director Addia Wuchner, a former Republican state representative, says the anti-abortion movement is working closely with faith communities and churches “that have always stood for pro-life values.”

“Kentucky has been a state that has historically valued life, and pro-life values have always been enshrined in the law,” she said.

Wuchner believes abortion rights advocates’ campaign is “misinformed and disingenuous” and inaccurately portrays the amendment as a ban on abortion. Instead, she argues the amendment would empower legislators to more closely regulate abortion and take the debate out of the court system.

“The lawmakers are the individuals that make the laws related to healthcare and reflect the values of Kentuckians, not the courts,” Wuchner said.

Kentucky’s Republican-led legislature has already shown its hand when it comes to abortion, passing several laws in recent years that effectively ban the procedure – the state’s trigger lawbans all abortions, except in cases where a pregnant person’s life is at risk. Kentucky also bans abortion after the 6th week of pregnancy.

The bans, which are now being enforced, currently hang in the balance of the Kentucky Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear arguments over the matter on Nov. 15. That’s a week after the referendum vote.

Wuchner said Yes For Life’s strategy is to tell voters about “stories of regrets and sadness that women find themselves with after an abortion.”

“We have to learn to do a better job now that we live in a post-Roe environment where after passing this constitutional amendment, we’re no longer playing on the defense,” she said. 

Yes For Life has raised a little over$350,000. Most donations came from the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, the Family Foundation and Kentucky Baptist Convention. Protect Kentucky Access has raised over $1.4 million this year, with contributions from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, Families United for Freedom, Planned Parenthood and individuals.

University of Louisville political science professor Anne Caldwell said over recent decades, anti-abortion groups have had an advantage electing politicians who wanted to regulate abortion out of existence. But the Kansas referendum showed that their messaging hasn’t been as effective in a post-Roe era.

“Their messaging towards voters who were ambivalent on abortion was ‘this is an amendment that would not actually lead to the entire banning of abortion.’ And people simply didn't believe that because many of the people who were in the state legislature had already said, ‘we'd like to pass laws that would ban abortion entirely’,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell said the big factor that worked in favor of Kansas reproductive rights groups was framing abortion as a personal decision.

“You're trying to get people who are Independents, people who are Republicans but support some access to abortion. And people who are Republicans, who might feel a little queasy about abortion, don't want to see the government telling people what to do,” she said.

Polling on abortion is mixed in Kentucky. A Pew Research poll from 2014 showed 57% of adults believe abortion should be illegal in most cases. A survey conducted by Planned Parenthood in 2019 said 65% of Kentuckians want “women to have access to all of the reproductive health care options available, including abortion.”

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.