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Kentucky's near-total abortion ban takes center stage in gubernatorial election

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who is running for governor, called his opponent's latest campaign ads  "despicable".
Timothy D. Easley
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who is running for governor, called his opponent's latest campaign ads "despicable".

Abortion access has rarely been a focal point for Democrats in Kentucky, but that's all changing in the run up to this November's gubernatorial election.

In the past few weeks, incumbent Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, has turned the issue into a centerpiece of his campaign against his opponent, Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who has vocally supported Kentucky's near-total ban on abortion.

As written, that law currently includes exceptions only for risk of death or debilitating injury to the pregnant person.

It has no exceptions for cases of rape and incest– something Beshear has seized on, prompting Cameron to come out for the first time saying he would sign legislation to add these exceptions to the existing law.

New campaign ads pack an emotional punch

In a new ad, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse looks straight into the camera as she describes the sexual abuse she suffered from her step-father when she was12-years-old.

"Anyone who believes there should be no exceptions for rape and incest could never understand what it's like to stand in my shoes," she says.

"This is to you, Daniel Cameron. To tell a 12-year-old girl she must have the baby of her stepfather, who raped her, is unthinkable. I'm speaking out because women and girls need to have options. Daniel Cameron would give us none."

The woman, identified in the ad as Hadley from Owensboro, KY, calls out Republican candidate Daniel Cameron for his support for the current abortion ban, which has no exceptions for rape and incest.
Timothy D. Easley / AP
The woman, identified in the ad as Hadley from Owensboro, KY, calls out Republican candidate Daniel Cameron for his support for the current abortion ban, which has no exceptions for rape and incest.

The ad follows another from Beshear attacking Cameron's abortion stance, which focused on a Louisville prosecutor who says Cameron prioritizes the rights of rapists over their victims.

At a gubernatorial forum Wednesday night, both candidates were asked to say one thing they liked about their opponent. Cameron called Beshear a "good family man," but criticized Beshear for his advertisements calling out his stance on reproductive health.

"I would have had a lot of nice things to say about [Beshear] until he ran that ad against me today," Cameron said.

Speaking to the Lexington Herald-Leader after the forum, Beshear said he believes more Kentuckians will agree with his ads and want exceptions to the ban.

"Listen, it is clear where Daniel Cameron is and where he's been," Beshear said. "But with seven weeks to go to an election, he finds himself down, and desperate people will say anything."

Cameron shifts on abortion exceptions

Earlier this week, Cameron flipped on his long-held position, saying on NewsRadio 840 WHAS he would consider signing a bill with exceptions to the law if it were placed in front of him.

This is a new position for Cameron, who until recently had been a staunch supporter of the ban, repeatedly saying he supports Kentucky's ban "as is," 'and never advocating for exceptions. A montage compiled by the Kentucky Democratic Party shows numerous clips in which Cameron supported the ban as it currently stands, without exceptions.

At a GOP primary forum earlier this year, a moderator asked Cameron whether he supports changes to the ban. Cameron responded, "I'm not going to waver in my position on this, and we're going to continue to defend the law as is."

Cameron also confirmed his initial position against rape and incest exceptions in a Kentucky Right to Life questionnaire, which asked "Do you believe that a child conceived as a result of sexual assault should be protected by the same laws protecting the lives of children conceived naturally?"

Cameron scored a 100% on the survey and won the organization's endorsement. Kentucky Right to Life did not return a request for comment or clarify if the endorsement still stands.

In a previous statement, Addia Wuchner, the executive director of Kentucky Right to Life, wrote, "We believe that it is irrational for society to expect a woman to terminate the life of her unborn child for the crime of his/her father. This is not the solution for sexual violence."

What this says about voters

Beshear's attacks, and Cameron's shift, represents a change in traditional roles of how politicians talk about abortion since it was largely banned in Kentucky after the 2022 Dobbs ruling. In previous gubernatorial races in Kentucky and across the South, reproductive rights rarely served as a rallying point for Democratic candidates, with Beshear previously sticking to a middle ground.

Tamarra Wieder, Kentucky state director for Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates, says after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the dynamic shifted in many states.

"There was a lot of fear about really being vocal about abortion," says Wieder. "But now legislators are doing the research and the polling themselves to find where their constituents are actually on these issues."

Recent data shows many Kentuckians favor some level of abortion access. Polling published by the Democratic Governors Association in June showed 62% of respondents oppose Kentucky's near-total ban, which only allows the procedure if the mother's life is at risk.

After Beshear's second ad aired, Cameron put out a video statement calling Beshear's tactics "despicable."

"He lectures us on partisanship and unity and then runs disgusting, false attacks," Cameron said. "I've said if the legislature were to bring me a bill with exceptions, I would sign it."

What the legislature will (or won't) do

It's unlikely Kentucky's GOP-controlled legislature would deliver a bill that includes exceptions to the state's abortion ban. The state's Republican lawmakers have repeatedly declined to add exceptions for rape or incest to various anti-abortion laws they passed in recent years.

Kentucky voters last year rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have given state lawmakers more power to regulate abortion, and would have prevented courts from finding a right to abortion under the state's foundational document.

David Walls, executive director of the Family Foundation of Kentucky, a conservative Christian advocacy group, says he will continue to work to further strengthen Kentucky's ban, not add exceptions.

"Our views on this are not influenced by polls. They're influenced by what we believe to be true. And that is that each and every child is a human being in the womb created in the image of God," Walls says. "I think it's very clear that Daniel Cameron has strongly stood for a pro-life position in the Attorney General's office."

Walls says he has no reason to believe any changes to the state's ban would make it through Kentucky's GOP supermajority legislature, and he says the choice in the upcoming gubernatorial election is clear for people against abortion.

"I don't think, with the pro-life majority in the General Assembly, I think you're gonna see a future-looking, pro-life agenda this session," Walls said. "We're going to look at how we continue to ensure that the laws are being enforced."

But Kentucky State Rep. Josh Calloway is illustrative of another way Kentuckians might view Cameron's flip,posting on X in responsethat he is "100% unashamedly Pro-Life. I believe Every unborn child should be protected."

Wieder, from the Planned Parenthood Alliance, says Cameron's shifting stance on the issue shows Republicans in Kentucky are starting to waver on all-out bans in the post-Roe era.

The Planned Parenthood Alliance announced this week a six-figure advertising campaign centered around reproductive rights.

"Abortion is a winning issue," Wieder says, adding that if Kentuckians make their opinions on abortion clear in upcoming elections, the legislature will have no choice but to listen to their constituents.

Sylvia Goodmanis Kentucky Public Radio's Capitol reporter.

Copyright 2023 Louisville Public Media

Sylvia Goodman