Fact✓Check | Abortion as a central issue in the governor’s race

It ended up as the fifth-highest priority in WKYT’s issues survey. And it has been a major issue in the governor’s race.
Published: Nov. 2, 2023 at 3:19 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Abortion has been a big issue for years, but now that it is largely outlawed in Kentucky the political dynamics around it have changed.

It ended up as the fifth-highest priority in WKYT’s issues survey. And it has been a major issue in the governor’s race. Yet the conversation has shifted from the primary campaign to the general election campaign.

Changing dynamics

In September 2022 - four months after Daniel Cameron launched his gubernatorial campaign - the Cameron campaign ran an ad that touted, “Only one candidate stopped abortion in Kentucky,” referencing a lawsuit he filed against the Beshear administration over the state’s abortion law.

But the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade - reversing 50 years of federal abortion protections and allowing states to make their own laws on the issue - has, across the country, turned abortion from what was long an issue of enthusiasm for conservatives into a winning issue for Democrats.

Unsurprisingly then, in the general election campaign, it has been the Beshear campaign pounding Cameron for his stance.

“Anyone who believes there should be no exceptions for rape and incest could never understand what it’s like to stand in my shoes,” Hadley, an Owensboro woman, says in an ad describing how she was raped by her stepfather when she was 12. “I’m speaking out because women and girls need to have options. Daniel Cameron would give us none.”

Much of the abortion debate has centered on exceptions to the state’s abortion bans.

Current law - and an exception

Kentucky lawmakers in 2019 passed two abortion bans signed by then-Governor Matt Bevin, a Republican:

  • The Human Life Protection Act is what’s often referred to as the state’s “trigger ban” or “trigger law.” It is a near-total ban that was enacted in 2019 but would only go into effect upon the reversal of Roe v. Wade or the adoption of a U.S. Constitutional amendment that would return to states the authority to prohibit abortion.
  • The “heartbeat law” prohibits abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, generally six weeks after conception.

The only exception in Kentucky law is to protect the life and health of the mother.

Exceptions as stated in the Human Life Protection Act:

  1. if, in the “reasonable medical judgment” of a licensed physician, it is necessary to “prevent the death or substantial risk of death due to a physical condition, or to prevent the serious, permanent impairment of a life-sustaining organ of a pregnant woman.” (The physician is required to make “reasonable medical efforts” to save the life of the mother and the baby.)
  2. if medical treatment given by a licensed physician “results in the accidental or unintentional injury or death to the unborn human being.”

Exception as stated in the heartbeat law: “to prevent the death of the pregnant woman or to prevent a serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman.”

Of the 22 states that ban or restrict abortion, eight have exceptions for rape and incest, according to an analysis by KFF, an independent nonprofit organization focused on national health issues.

Kentucky does not.

A bill to add those exceptions - filed this past session by Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Middletown - was never assigned to a committee.

Cameron’s stances

The candidates sparred over abortion at The Kentucky Debate.

“My opponent has had 11 different chances to look at a camera and to tell you whether he is personally for exceptions for rape and incest,” Beshear said at the debate. “I’ll show you how: I am personally for exceptions for rape and incest. Those individuals deserve options.”

Fact✓Check: Cameron’s position has appeared to evolve.

As attorney general, Cameron has expressed support for the state’s near-total ban and defended it in court.

In September, in an apparent reversal of his previous stance, Cameron began saying that he would sign legislation that provided exceptions for rape and incest.

He later clarified that to say he supports the state’s ban but would support rape and incest exceptions “if the courts made us change that law.”

On the WKYT debate stage, Cameron reiterated that he would sign a bill with those exceptions but, when pressed on the topic, did not say he would push lawmakers to do it.

Russell Coleman, a Republican running to replace Cameron as attorney general, said he supported rape and incest exceptions and would call on the General Assembly to “take a hard look at that issue.”

Medical records

Outside groups are also hitting Cameron on his abortion positions.

“Cameron even supports allowing the government to investigate our private medical records,” Heather Maberry says in one ad from Defending Bluegrass Values.

At a 20-week ultrasound, Maberry’s baby, Willow, was diagnosed with anencephaly - a fatal condition where a major portion of the brain, skull and scalp is not developed.

“I see my baby that has no brain, that has no life, and it hurts,” Maberry told WKYT.

Because Kentucky’s law also contains no exceptions for fatal fetal anomalies, Maberry, who lives in Powell County, left the state to end her pregnancy.

Fact✓Check: Right now, HIPAA’s privacy rule allows certain private medical information to be disclosed for law enforcement purposes.

In the aftermath of the Roe reversal, the Biden administration began seeking to change the rule to shield the information of patients who travel out-of-state for reproductive health care.

In June, Cameron joined 18 other Republican state attorneys general in signing a 17-page letter - sent to the U.S. Attorney General - in opposition to the proposed rule change.

The change “would unlawfully interfere with states’ authority to enforce their laws” and could end up protecting providers who perform illegal abortions, the letter states.

Kentucky’s current bans make providing an abortion a Class D felony, meaning providers could face one to five years in prison.

The law explicitly states that the mother is not subject to any penalty, and Cameron told WLEX, “We’re not prosecuting pregnant mothers.”

Cameron opposed a bill filed in February by a Republican lawmaker that would allow women who get abortions to be charged with homicide.

Beshear’s record

Cameron has said that Beshear is “an extremist” on the issue of abortion, claiming his “record in public office is clear: He supports abortion through the ninth month.”

Fact✓Check: Beshear says he has always supported “reasonable restrictions” on abortion, especially on late-term procedures.

Beshear said the definition of “late-term” was decided by the courts in Roe v. Wade. Under the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, a woman’s right to an abortion was protected prior to the viability of the fetus.

As attorney general, Beshear in 2017 said he would defend the state’s law requiring an ultrasound before an abortion but refused to defend the state’s 20-week abortion ban, calling it “clearly unconstitutional.”

As governor, he vetoed a 15-week abortion ban, citing the lack of exceptions for rape and incest.

Cameron’s running mate

As a current member of the state legislature, Cameron’s running mate, Sen. Robby Mills, R-Henderson, has supported multiple pieces of abortion legislation.

In 2019, Sen. Mills voted in favor of the state’s trigger ban, and he also voted in favor of the six-week abortion ban.

Last November, Kentucky voters rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have explicitly stated the commonwealth’s constitution contains no right to an abortion.

Mills, co-chair of the General Assembly’s “Pro-Life Caucus,” wrote a Herald-Leader op-ed urging voters to support it.