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After statewide ban, candidates for Louisville mayor diverge on abortion access

062422_Abortion Rally_Federal Courthouse_Protester
Protesters at an abortion rights rally in downtown Louisville following the U.S. Supreme Court decision that undercut abortion rights across the country.

On June 24, the day the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and Kentucky’s trigger ban went into effect, one candidate for Louisville mayor immediately came out against the move. The other said it wasn't an issue to be handled locally.

Democratic candidate Craig Greenberg vowed not to allow the Louisville Metro Police Department to arrest doctors.

“We don’t yet know what the downward spiral of consequences will be for all Americans, only that it will be devastating to the lives, health and privacy of millions,” he said at the time. “As Mayor, I will do everything within the city’s power to limit the damage of this decision.”

In contrast, Republican Bill Dieruf, the outgoing nonpartisan mayor of Jeffersontown, sidestepped questions that day about his own stance on abortion access.

“I am choosing to leave the decision-making on this issue in the hands of the state and federal elected officials who have the ability in their roles to affect legislation related to abortion,” he said.

Dieruf added that he had been talking with Louisville residents every day about what they want their next mayor to focus on, and abortion didn’t make the list. 

That response — that a mayor has little to do with abortion access and there are more pressing local issues to discuss — characterizes Dieruf’s public statements on the issue throughout his campaign. Dieruf is trying to become Louisville's first Republican mayor since 1969 and he’s stressed his ability to work with both major political parties.

Dieruf and Greenberg, who is the former CEO of 21c Museum Hotels, announced new backers on the same day in August. Greenberg had garnered the support of the advocacy arm of Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, while Dieruf held a press conference appearing alongside police officers from Louisville Metro and suburban counties. Leaders of the local Fraternal Order of Police unions chose Dieruf as their candidate in the upcoming election.

But at the press conference held at the River City FOP Lodge near Okolona, Dieruf declined to discuss his stance on abortion.

It wasn’t until Oct. 4, after Greenberg released an attack ad claiming Dieruf was backed by “anti-choice extremists,” that Dieruf released a statement outlining his views. In a one-page denunciation of the ad, Dieruf said he believes “life is precious.”

“However, I believe any legislation regulating or restricting abortion should include exceptions for rape, incest, life of the mother and health of the baby,” he added.

Dieruf reiterated in his statement that he believes it's up to the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure, not local police or mayors, to enforce the state’s abortion ban. And he said issues “like safety, housing, jobs, economic development and drug addiction” would be his focus. 

“Mr. Greenberg cites Roe v. Wade for one purpose, and that is to divide us and polarize our community further while bringing up a national and state level issue,” Dieruf said. “Mr. Greenberg is completely lost when it comes to understanding the role of a mayor.”

Dieruf has contended that his views on access to reproductive health care are not extreme. But Greenberg said that in Louisville, where registered Democrats far outnumber registered Republicans, it is an extreme position to take. He criticized Dieruf for refusing to say whether he’d let Louisville police enforce the state’s abortion ban in a recent interview with WFPL News.

“I am clear about my commitment,” Greenberg said. “He won’t even make that commitment and, to me, that says it all.”

Greenberg disagrees with the assertion that abortion access is simply a state and federal issue. Under Kentucky’s near-total abortion ban, any doctor who provides the procedure is at risk of arrest for a Class D felony. The law does not subject the person seeking an abortion to criminal liability, however. 

There have also been fights between local policy makers in recent years over how to handle daily protests in front of the EMW Women’s Surgical Center, one of only two clinics in Kentucky that offered abortion procedures prior to the ban.

“If it’s not a local issue, why have right to life organizations been endorsing candidates for 20 years in Louisville and around Kentucky?” Greenberg said.

There’s no doubt access to abortion will be front of mind for some voters when they head to the polls next month. Kentuckians will have an amendment on the ballot that would ensure abortion rights aren’t protected under the state constitution. The question is being put to voters as pro-abortion rights advocates sue in court to try to block the state’s ban.

How the abortion debate will affect the mayoral race remains to be seen. The General Election on Nov. 8 will be the first time in more than a decade that an incumbent’s name will not be on the ballot for Louisville mayor. 

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.