FRANKFORT, Ky. – After years of setbacks, abortion-rights supporters in Republican-leaning Kentucky thought they achieved a breakthrough in November, when voters defeated a measure aimed at denying any constitutional protections for abortion.
But their hopes that the state's sweeping abortion ban might be relaxed vanished well before the GOP-dominated Legislature ended its annual session.
After years of making anti-abortion policies a cornerstone of their agenda, Republicans skipped over the issue this year, leaving intact a ban on abortion at all stages of pregnancy while it's hashed out in the courts. Instead, social conservatives focused on enacting legislation aimed at transgender youths during the session that ended Thursday.
A handful of abortion bills, including proposals to restore abortion rights or add rape and incest exemptions to the sweeping ban, either failed to get a committee hearing or never were assigned to a committee.
For most states, this was the first legislative session since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and lawmakers on both sides have dug in. Republicans are moving to make abortion restrictions tougher, while Democrats are seeking to protect access.
In Kentucky, beleaguered abortion-rights proponents had hoped momentum would swing in their direction, only to be left frustrated.
Democratic state Rep. Lindsey Burke filed legislation to restore abortion access, saying she believed "Kentucky voters spoke loud and clear last November."
“If passing my bill was not possible, then I definitely think more should have been done to carve out at least some exemptions,” Burke added.
Republicans pointed to legal uncertainties surrounding Kentucky's ban that allows abortions only to save a woman's life or prevent disabling injury. That has largely been in place since the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right to abortion in their ruling last June. In February, Kentucky's Supreme Court refused to halt the law while sending the case back to a lower court to consider larger constitutional questions about whether abortion should be legal in the state.
“I still think there’s a desire to wait for more clarity from the courts before we move forward,” said Republican Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, a staunch abortion opponent who even before the legislative session began had predicted it would be difficult to persuade anti-abortion senators to add more exceptions for when a pregnancy could be ended.
Abortion-rights supporters trumpeted the defeat of the anti-abortion ballot measure in November as a clear mandate from voters. But key Republican lawmakers didn't see it that way.
“I saw it more as the opposing campaign ran a better campaign that scared people into voting ‘no,’” Thayer said.
The abortion debate drew widespread attention during the campaign, when both sides mounted grassroots efforts, but it turned to silence during Kentucky's ensuing legislative session.
One bill briefly received attention when it was introduced in late February, nearly a week after the state Supreme Court opinion. That measure would have permitted abortions caused by rape or incest for up to 15 weeks of pregnancy. Another exemption would have allowed abortions if two doctors determined that a fetus has an “abnormality that is incompatible with life outside the womb.”
The bill's lead sponsor was Republican state Rep. Jason Nemes, the House majority party whip, but the measure was never assigned to a committee.
“That’s something I believe in and I’ll fight for," Nemes said in recent days when discussing his bill. "But I don’t think there’s a mandate across Kentucky either way” on the abortion issue.
Democratic state Rep. Rachel Roberts, who unsuccessfully pushed for rape and incest exceptions last year, said she wasn’t surprised the exemptions bill went nowhere.
“The voters’ rejection of the anti-abortion constitutional amendment meant nothing to their party, which is as tragic as it is unsurprising,” said Roberts, the House minority party whip.
Other failed abortion bills this year ran the gamut — from a Republican freshman's bill to allow illegal abortions to be prosecuted as homicides to the bill to restore abortion access.
Abortion came up in casual conversations during the session, but House Republicans didn’t formally discuss abortion measures in caucus meetings, said Nemes, a chief House GOP vote-counter who called it a “divisive issue.”
Kentucky's GOP lawmakers instead focused on another issue that's energized the party's base across the U.S. — restricting the rights of LGBTQ+ people. Republicans overrode Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear's veto to enact a bill that bans access to gender-affirming health care for transgender youths and restricts the bathrooms they can use in schools.
“With access to abortion care currently unavailable in Kentucky, those individuals needed another political football,” said Angela Cooper, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky. “Sadly, they chose to sit on the wrong wide of history and attack trans youth.”