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As Roe decision looms, Kentuckians prepare for abortion ban

Ryan Van Velzer
Ryan Van Velzer

When Republican state lawmakers in Kentucky passed a sweeping bill restricting abortion last month, providers halted surgical and medicine-induced abortions completely for more than a week.

The law makes it harder for minors to get abortions, restricts abortion medication and bans abortion at 15 weeks. It doesn’t specifically ban abortions outright, but the state’s two providers said they couldn’t legally provide them because they couldn’t comply with regulations that weren’t yet in place.

A federal judge has since temporarily blocked the bill and will soon consider its constitutionality. Planned Parenthood and EMW Women’s Surgical Center, which have joined forces against the state in the federal lawsuit, have also resumed abortion services.

But providers and others who assist with abortions say that week could be a glimpse of what’s to come for abortion access in Kentucky – and the region – this year.

A recently leaked U.S. Supreme court draft opinion shows the justices are moving toward overturning the 1973 landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade this summer.

If that happens, roughly half of all US states are certain or likely to ban or severely restrict access to abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Kentucky is one of them. In 2019, the state legislature passed a so-called “trigger law,” which would automatically ban abortions if Roe is overturned, only allowing them if a pregnant patient is at risk of death or permanent impairment.

That year, they also passed a law banning abortion around six weeks, which is currently blocked in court.

The restriction of abortion could be further codified in November, when voters will decide whether to pass a constitutional amendment to remove any protections for abortion in the state.

Kentucky Senator Stephen Meredith, one of 107 state lawmakers who voted to override the governor’s veto of this year’s bill, spoke at a hearing in April, saying he wants to see the end of abortion.

“This is a stain upon our country,” he said. “It’s our greatest sin. It needs to be reversed.”

Stevie Benge is a medical receptionist at Planned Parenthood’s Louisville Health Center. She said during that week, many patients were not aware of what had happened at the statehouse.

“Most folks for that week and the following week had no idea that the law had passed,” Benge said. “And so they would walk in for their abortion consultation and we were the first person to tell them that they couldn’t get an abortion in Kentucky.”

She said reactions ranged from anger to hopelessness. Almost every one they spoke with cried.

Working with Indiana’s two Planned Parenthood clinics, the Louisville provider still did the pre-abortion consultations in town, which allowed patients who’d have to travel to shorten their trips.

Still there were barriers, including how they’d get to another city for an abortion.

“They’re trying to figure out how they can get to Bloomington or Indianapolis when they don’t even have a physical means of transportation,” Benge said. “And then suddenly they’re thinking about having to have an abortion and then taking a bus home.”

And she worries it’s foreshadowing of what’s to come, if the U.S. Supreme Court rules this summer to overturn Roe v Wade.

“We’re all staring down the barrel of how much more time do we even have left?” she said. “The inevitability is eventually that anyone who wants an abortion is going to have to go to Illinois.”

That’s because Illinois is likely one of the only states in the Midwest where abortion would still be allowed.

Megan Jeyifo is the director at the Chicago Abortion Fund – which provides financial, logistical and emotional support for people coming to Illinois for abortions.

She said they typically get around 500 calls a month from people seeking help in getting abortions in the state, which is roughly double what it was last year.

When abortion access was cut off in Kentucky for that week in April, she and her team saw an uptick in calls from people in the Commonwealth. She said they helped people from around 20 different states last month.

“People are coming into Illinois from as far as Texas, from as far as Kentucky, just all across the nation right now,” Jeyifo said.

She said providers are already preparing – opening more clinics, hiring more staff – for the likelihood they’ll serve many more out-of-town patients if the law is overturned.

Planned Parenthood of Illinois CEO and President Jennifer Welch recently told The Chicago Tribune she expects between 20,000 and 30,000 additional people per year seeking abortions in the state if Roe is overturned.

Providers say many of the people seeking abortions are already parents, and that the ban would disproportionately affect young people and other already-vulnerable populations, like people of color and those with low or no income.

Brenda Rosen echoes that sentiment. She’s the executive director at the Kentucky chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, which advocates for human rights and reproductive justice. She said the leaked Supreme Court opinion has caused panic among Kentuckians of all ages.

“We’ve had an increase in calls from families and other social workers who are sharing that their middle schoolers and teenagers are terrified now of ‘What will happen, Mom, if I’m raped? Will I be forced to have the baby?’”

She said overturning Roe would be detrimental.

“It’s as if we’re taking 100 steps 100 years backward in our country right now,” she said. “And it’s terrifying. It’s causing a great deal of anxiety.”

Following the draft opinion leak, hundreds gathered in downtown Louisville, demanding reproductive rights be protected.

That included Summer Dickerson, founder of Women of the Well Ministry, which brings awareness to human trafficking and domestic violence.

She said she’s a survivor of human trafficking and had an abortion after learning she was pregnant by her trafficker.

“As much as that affected me,” Dickerson said, “this – telling me I can’t have an abortion – would have affected me more.

“I was a slave, I was sold and auctioned off to the highest bidder many times, and then after that trauma, I decide to make a judgment call for me and my child and then to be judged for that as well … it’s not OK.”

She added that hearing the court could be set to overturn Roe blew her mind.

“They’re not going to stop anything; all they’re going to do is stop safe abortions,” she said. “That message time and time again is: if you have a uterus, we don’t care about you.”

Jeyifo, with the Chicago Abortion Fund, says existing restrictions already harm these groups by making abortion costly and clinics hard-to-reach, and the possible Supreme Court decision will compound that.

“This will just make it more excruciating than it already is,” she said. “Roe is the bare minimum. And it’s just devastating to think that we’re going to lose even that.”

WFPL Reporter Ryan Van Velzer contributed to this story. 

Aprile is WFPL's health reporter. Rickert comes to WFPL from the News and Tribune in Southern Indiana, where she covered crime and courts as a senior reporter. A New Albany native, she spent nearly two decades in Louisville before recently moving back across the river to Jeffersonville.
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