Kentucky activists ask voters to reject anti-abortion amendment A proposed amendment would state explicitly that there is no right to abortion in Kentucky's state constitution, complicating efforts to challenge two state abortion bans.

In Kentucky, abortion rights activists hope for a repeat of Kansas win

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Abortion is on the November ballot in several states, including Kentucky. Voters there are being asked to weigh in on whether the state constitution should include any protections for reproductive rights. As NPR's Sarah McCammon reports, abortion rights activists are looking to Kansas, where voters rejected a similar measure in August, for inspiration.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: In Kentucky, abortion already has been unavailable for months under state laws that were allowed to take effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned decades of abortion rights precedent, including Roe v. Wade. Now, Kentucky's state constitution is at the center of the next fight.

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BETH KUHN: Hi. We're here with Protect Kentucky Access. I'm Beth, and this is Judy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hi.

KUHN: Do you have a moment to talk with us about Amendment Two?

MCCAMMON: On a recent afternoon, volunteers Beth Kuhn and her friend Judy Thiell are going door to door in a Louisville neighborhood, urging residents to vote no.

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KUHN: So it's very rigid and unforgiving as a constitutional amendment.

MCCAMMON: Amendment Two would state explicitly that Kentucky's Constitution offers no protections for abortion rights. If approved, it would complicate, if not entirely thwart, efforts to overturn the two state abortion bans that are currently in effect here. Those laws offer no exceptions for rape or incest and only narrow exceptions for medical emergencies. Rachel Sweet is the campaign manager for Protect Kentucky Access.

RACHEL SWEET: In order to restore access to legal abortion in Kentucky, we have to defeat Amendment Two. And then the plaintiffs in those cases need to win.

MCCAMMON: In August, Sweet led the successful effort to defeat a similar amendment in Kansas, where abortion remains legal up to 20 weeks. That vote in another conservative-leaning state surprised many observers. Sweet says here in Kentucky, the stakes are even higher.

SWEET: And whereas in Kansas, we were trying to really make an argument about protecting the status quo and, you know, protecting the rights that we had in the Kansas Constitution. This is really about, how do we start reversing the tide of these really extreme abortion restrictions that we've seen?

MCCAMMON: For Kentuckians who oppose abortion, Amendment Two offers an opportunity to shore up state restrictions for the long term. Addia Wuchner is with Kentucky Right to Life and a leader of the Vote Yes campaign. She points to decades of federal litigation around abortion under Roe v. Wade and says she doesn't want to see drawn-out battles over abortion bans in Kentucky's state courts now.

ADDIA WUCHNER: Remember; we've had Roe. We've been in the 49 years of Roe. No one wants 49 years of the Kentucky Constitution drug out into this battle.

MCCAMMON: Polling on the ballot initiative is hard to come by, but a 2019 survey from the firm Public Policy Polling found that a majority of Kentuckians support abortion rights and oppose criminalizing the procedure. Wuchner argues the amendment before voters would keep the state constitution neutral on abortion, which her organization opposes in virtually all circumstances.

WUCHNER: It just keeps it out of the constitution. It keeps it so there cannot be a misinterpretation in the constitution. And that's very important.

MCCAMMON: But I think a lot of people are afraid - looking around the country, looking at some states that have passed laws without exceptions for rape and incest, for example - that...

WUCHNER: What are they afraid of - they won't be able to kill their children? Let's talk about what are they afraid of - afraid that they won't have the right for women to take the lives of their children? Do you think that's a right?

MCCAMMON: Wuchner notes that here in Kentucky, as in Kansas, abortion rights supporters have significantly out-fundraised groups who oppose abortion. But the amendment also has strong support from powerful conservative religious groups, including the Catholic Conference of Kentucky and the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Standing on her front lawn across town, Altia Connor says her faith points her to a different conclusion when it comes to abortion.

ALTIA CONNOR: And a lot of people, they look at it with the God thing. Well, they'll have to answer to God for themselves, but it's still their right. It's their right to do with their body.

MCCAMMON: Connor is standing in the sunshine as a local activist delivers a yard sign that says, Vote No - Amendment Two. Now 71, Connor was a teenager in the 1960s before Roe v. Wade. She remembers girls sometimes taking desperate measures when they got pregnant, particularly one girl from her church, who died after a botched abortion.

CONNOR: I'm thinking now, as a grown-up, that young girl didn't have to die. You know, she didn't have to try these homemade remedies and doing things like that if there had been a choice - if she'd had another choice.

MCCAMMON: Today, once again, Kentuckians do not have that choice. But soon voters will have a chance to send a signal to their state courts and lawmakers about whether or not that should change. Kentucky's Supreme Court is waiting to rule on the future of the state's abortion bans until after the election. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Louisville.

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