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In a post-Roe world, Kentucky legislators seek to promote maternal health

Tina Nahid,
Sylvia Goodman
Tina Nahid, who volunteers at a crisis pregnancy center, carries a "Pro-Life" flag at the March for Life in Frankfort, Ky.

Democrats in Kentucky’s legislature are pushing for exceptions to the state’s near total abortion ban. At the same time, Republicans and anti-abortion activists are pushing into new legislative frontiers to promote a “culture of life.”

Democratic U.S. Representative Morgan McGarvey stood with Kentucky activists and a state senator, on the 51st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the now overturned case that established a federal right to an abortion.

“I want to be clear that we will not stop fighting, we will always work to make sure that women can make the health care decisions they need,” McGarvey said last week.

After the fall of Roe V. Wade and the implementation of a near-total ban on abortion in Kentucky, legislators and activists are continuing the fight over reproductive rights. But even as the two camps remain entrenched in their positions, both sides appear to have found common ground in legislation that protects maternal health.

Kentucky is one of 12 states with a near total ban on abortion. Only pregnant women in imminent danger of death or permanent injury are legally allowed to access an abortion in the state.

The ban went into effect in July 2022, but in the same year, voters turned down Amendment 2, which would have ensured there was no right to abortion in the Kentucky Constitution.

“We don't tell voters what's important. Voters tell us what's important. Fifty-four percent of Kentuckians voted against [Amendment 2],” McGarvey said. “You asked if legislators noticed? Absolutely.”

State Sen. David Yates, from Louisville, stood with pro-abortion access activists at a news conference on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
Sylvia Goodman
State Sen. David Yates, from Louisville, stood with pro-abortion access activists at a news conference on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

Democrats are now calling for exceptions to the abortion ban following the lead of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear who made them a centerpiece of his reelection campaign. Sen. David Yates of Louisville has proposed Hadley’s Law that would expand language around dangers to the mother’s life, add exceptions for non-viable pregnancies and for victims of rape and incest.

“I'm placed in a position that I do something in a baby step that may help few, or I do nothing,” Yates said. “Nothing will be overnight, but it's worth fighting for.”

The day after Roe’s anniversary and McGarvey’s news conference, the March for Life swept through Frankfort. A few hundred people marched to the Capitol, through the rain, celebrating the abortion ban in Kentucky, many wearing bright red scarves with the words “Love them both” emblazoned on them.

Jessica Armentano, a 16 year-old girl and a leader with Kentucky Students for Life, spoke before the march. She described herself as a member of the “post-Roe generation,” and said being a young anti-abortion activist is countercultural.

“One day we will be the leaders of the pro-life cause and now is our time to prepare,” Armentano said. “Let us be the generation that makes abortion unthinkable.”

Waving a giant “Pro-life” flag, Tina Nahid said she volunteers at a crisis pregnancy center in Bowling Green, where she is able to spread her views against abortion. Nahid said she came to the march to support Kentucky's current abortion ban and keeping the state’s extremely limited exceptions.

“I like what’s happened already. I stand for life,” Nahid said. “We just have to trust God’s process. That’s just what I believe.”

Nahid said now that abortion is largely banned in Kentucky, she and other activists are looking to promote a “culture of life.” That battle is already playing out in the state legislature.

For example, one Republican bill would allow pregnant women to request child support at any time following conception, which reproductive rights advocates say could create a precedent for fetal personhood.

Another would require human development education primarily in the form of a “high-definition ultrasound video, at least three minutes in duration” and an animation of growth in utero. It’s similar to a bill making its way through the West Virginia legislature that would require schools show students a 3-minute animation produced by a pro-life organization.

There does appear to be some areas of agreement however. Both sides have expressed interest in doing more to improve maternal health outcomes in Kentucky. Louisville Democrat Rep. Sarah Stalker is co-sponsoring a bipartisan so-called “momnibus” bill to do just that.

“It speaks volumes to me as a legislator and as a Kentuckian when a room full of women with varying opinions and experiences, political identities and beliefs will sit down and acknowledge the abysmal maternal health outcomes that we have in this state,” Stalker said.

Republican Rep. Kim Moser of Ryland Heights, the bill’s lead sponsor, said it’ll expand insurance access and help pregnant people access existing resources.

“I wanted to start with and prioritize the health of the mother initially and really target the reasons for our high maternal mortality,” Moser said.

Republican House leadership has expressed support for the measure, and it is awaiting its first committee hearing.

Other proposals introduced this year include requiring better collection of maternal mortality data, expansion of Medicaid to include lactation support and another bill to expand it to include doula services.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.

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