Kentucky voters rejected a ballot measure aimed at denying any constitutional protections for abortion, handing a victory to abortion-rights supporters who have seen access to the procedure eroded by Republican lawmakers in the deeply red state.
The outcome of Tuesday's election highlighted what appeared to be a gap between voter sentiment and the expectations of Kentucky's Republican-dominated legislature, which imposed a near-total ban on abortions and put the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot.
While a significant moral victory for abortion-rights advocates, the amendment's defeat will have no practical impact on the right to an abortion if a sweeping ban on the procedure approved by lawmakers survives a legal challenge presently before the state Supreme Court.
Still, the amendment's rejection leaves open the possibility that abortion could be declared a state right by the court.
Rachel Sweet of Protect Kentucky Access, an abortion-rights coalition, hailed the outcome as a "historic win" against "government overreach" into the personal medical decisions of Kentuckians.
"The people of Kentucky have spoken and their answer is no - no to extremist politicians banning abortion and making private medical decisions on their behalf," said Amber Duke, interim executive director for the ACLU of Kentucky.
Abortion-rights supporters who suffered years of setbacks in the legislature were jubilant, but said much more work is ahead in their quest to restore access to the procedure.
The Kentucky ballot question had asked voters if they wanted to amend the constitution to say: "To protect human life, nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to secure or protect a right to abortion or require the funding of abortion."
A year ago, lawmakers had added the proposed amendment to the 2022 general election slate in a move some thought would drive more conservative voters to the polls at a time before the US Supreme Court decision in June overturning Roe v Wade.
Since then, voters in Kansas have rejected a ballot measure that would have changed that state's constitution to let lawmakers tighten restrictions or ban abortions. Kentucky was among a handful of states with abortion referendums on the ballot this fall.
The Kentucky Supreme Court has a hearing next week on challenges by the state's two remaining abortion clinics to the near-total abortion ban approved by lawmakers. The high court ruled this summer that the ban would stay in place while it reviewed the challenges.
Abortion-related court battles have been frequent and fierce in Kentucky after Republicans took full control of the legislature after the 2016 election. Lawmakers enacted a series of laws adding restrictions and requirements for those seeking to end their pregnancies.
Fervour ran high on both sides during the campaign, as donations poured in, politicians spoke out, volunteers canvassed neighbourhoods and advocates accused the opposition of misleading voters.
The legislature previously enacted a so-called trigger law banning nearly all abortions if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade. The only instances when abortions are currently allowed in Kentucky are to save a pregnant woman's life or to prevent disabling injury. There are no exceptions for rape or incest victims. Pointing to the extremely narrow exceptions, abortion-rights supporters said the legislature's hardline stand on abortion made constitutional protections necessary.
Abortion opponents, in pushing for the amendment, said it would have ensured abortion policy comes from the legislature -- where they say it belongs -- and not from the courts.