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Activists renew push to repeal Kentucky's near-total abortion ban

Kentucky state Rep. Lindsey Burke, left, chats before speaking at a news conference, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, in Frankfort, Ky. Burke unveiled a bill aimed at restoring abortion access in Kentucky. The state currently has a near-total ban on abortion. (AP Photo/Bruce Schreiner)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Abortion rights supporters mounted another push Wednesday to restore abortion access in Kentucky, but the Democratic lawmaker sponsoring the legislation acknowledged the odds are overwhelmingly against them in the Republican-dominated legislature.

A near-total abortion ban has been in place in Kentucky since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022. The so-called trigger law banned abortions except when carried out to save the mother's life. It does not include exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest.

The bill unveiled Wednesday by Democratic Rep. Lindsey Burke would roll back Kentucky's abortion laws to the time before Republicans claimed majority status in the House after the 2016 election. Since then, GOP lawmakers who dominate the legislature have passed a series of bills putting more restrictions on abortion, culminating in the near-total ban under the trigger law — which passed in 2019 and took effect when Roe v. Wade was struck down.

Republican supermajorities in Kentucky's legislature skipped over the abortion issue last year and so far have not taken up abortion-related measures in this year's session, which continues until mid-April.

“I think the truth is that there’s very little appetite for change, at least among the supermajority,” Burke acknowledged at a news conference Wednesday.

But she predicted that grassroots activism to restore abortion access would eventually pay dividends. Activists point to the outcome of a statewide vote in 2022 when Kentuckians rejected a ballot measure backed by GOP lawmakers that would have denied any constitutional protections for abortion

“The more these groups get mobilized, the more they speak to their lawmakers, I think we will get to a place where action will be required,” Burke said. "And I will look forward to that day.”

Abortion opponents gathered for a recent rally at Kentucky's Capitol, where they “stood together as one voice, united in love for every precious life,” said Addia Wuchner, executive director of Kentucky Right to Life.

Burke was joined by Democratic colleagues and abortion-rights supporters at the news conference. Jackie McGranahan, a senior policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, said the ban fails to recognize that some pregnancies are unplanned, complicated and risky.

“Repealing the current abortion ban in Kentucky is not about promoting one choice over another," she said. "It’s about recognizing that pregnancy can be complicated. And it’s our duty to ensure individuals have the autonomy to make decisions that are best for their health, their families and their future.”

A Senate bill introduced early in this year's session would relax the state’s abortion ban by allowing the procedure when pregnancies are caused by rape or incest, or when pregnancies are deemed nonviable or medical emergencies threaten the mother. The Democratic-sponsored bill has made no headway.

That bill won an endorsement from Hadley Duvall, who dominated discussion about abortion during last year's campaign for Kentucky governor. Now a college senior in her early 20s, Duvall became pregnant as a seventh grader but ultimately miscarried. Her stepfather was convicted of rape. She recounted those traumatic events in a campaign ad for Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear that attacked his Republican challenger’s longstanding support for the state's abortion ban. Beshear won a resounding reelection victory last November.

Kentucky's Supreme Court last year refused to strike down the near-total abortion ban. The justices ruled on narrow legal issues but left unanswered the larger constitutional questions about whether access to abortion should be legal in the Bluegrass State.

In late 2023, a Kentucky woman sued to demand the right to an abortion, but her attorneys later withdrew the lawsuit after the woman learned her embryo no longer had cardiac activity.

Elsewhere, legislatures in some other states with strict abortion bans are facing pressure to clarify or loosen their exemptions but it’s unclear if they will do so.

In Kentucky, Burke revealed two other bills Wednesday. One would provide legal protections for private medical information and providers when patients go to other states to undergo abortions. The other bill seeks to provide more Kentucky women with information about maternal and postpartum depression.