LEXINGTON, Ky. -- For the fourth time in more than 20 years, a Republican lawmaker is proposing to amend the Kentucky Constitution to make clear the state's citizens have no right to an abortion.
The bill by state Rep. Joseph Fischer of Fort Thomas is one of a handful of bills Republicans have proposed to limit abortion access, even as Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, does his part to widen it. On Tuesday, the Courier Journal reported the Beshear administration will allow Planned Parenthood to apply for a license to provide abortions at its Louisville clinic. EMW Women's Surgical Center in Louisville is currently the only licensed abortion provider in Kentucky.
Co-sponsored by nearly 20 other Republicans, Fischer's House Bill 67 would constitutionally enshrine that Kentuckians have no right to obtain or pay for an abortion.
"Right now in our state, there is no constitutional right to an abortion. This simply confirms that and puts the issue of regulating abortion to the Legislature, not the court," Fischer said Tuesday.
The proposed amendment states: "To protect human life, nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to secure or protect a right to an abortion or require the funding of abortion."
In Kentucky, voters get the ultimate say when it comes to altering the state constitution. If the bill is approved by the Republican-led General Assembly, the amendment would then be put to a statewide referendum in November. This question has never appeared on a ballot before in Kentucky, nor has any other abortion-related question, according to the Legislative Research Commission.
West Virginia passed a similar constitutional ban last year with virtually identical language. Louisiana voters will decide in November whether to do the same.
Though there are still fewer anti-abortion rights proposals than last year's half dozen, the groundswell of support for them is stronger, said House Speaker David Osborne, R-Prospect.
"I think clearly we've probably been the most pro-life legislature, certainly in a long time, if not ever," he said. Though House Republicans have declared their top priorities this session to be public assistance reform and combating human trafficking, Osborne said there's still a lot of caucus support for anti-abortion legislation.
This bill marks the fourth attempt by Fisher since 1998 to pass such an amendment, LRC records show: HB 251 in 2007, HB 549 in 2010 and HB 473 in 2018. Each time, the bill never received a committee hearing and had very few sponsors.
The three other failed attempts were made when Republicans were in the minority, Fischer said. "Now, it means something."
On Monday, Republican state Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, filed an emergency bill known as the "Born-Alive Infant Protection Act" that would force a medical provider who performs an abortion to "take all medically appropriate and reasonable steps to preserve the life and health" of an infant who is born alive after an attempted abortion. He filed a similar bill last year.
It also would amend statute language to formalize that any "born-alive infant shall be treated as a legal person," and that any person would be blocked from "performing scientific research on a born-alive infant." Any violators of the proposed statute language could have their medical license revoked and be charged with a Class D felony.
On the Senate floor Monday, Westerfield, who has the support of Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said he expects the bill to pass and hopes the Legislature would vote to override a gubernatorial veto, should Beshear veto the bill.
Another bill concerning to abortion-rights groups this legislative session is HB 142, from state Rep. Lynn Bechler, R-Marion, which bars the release of state money to any group, organization or individual that "performs, induces, refers for, or counsels in favor of abortions," according to the bill language. The bill would not apply to funding for school abstinence programs.
Bechler on Tuesday said his bill wouldn't prevent a medical provider who receives state money from laying out a patient's options and include abortion as one of those options, it just cannot be recommended.
Kentucky already prohibits publicly funded abortions in statute except in cases of rape, incest or life endangerment scenarios, said bill opponent Jackie McGranahan, reproductive rights field organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky. Private insurers, too, are already barred from covering abortion services.
Going a step further to police conversations between a victim of sexual assault and a medical provider to ensure one isn't being referred or counseled to get an abortion is "honestly mind-blowing," she said.
"These decisions about pregnancies are personal, and can be very difficult," McGranahan said. "When a patient and a doctor are talking about fatal fetal diagnosis, this makes honest conversations illegal and unlawful."
If lawmakers approve the proposed abortion-related bills, Kentucky will have passed more than a half a dozen abortion restrictions since early 2018. ACLU Advocacy Director Kate Miller said it's clear that lawmakers "just want to do everything (to ensure that) every single Kentuckian who starts a pregnancy is forced to continue that pregnancy, regardless of the situation they might be in."
In last year's regular session, Fischer was lead sponsor on one of the four bills restricting abortion access that were passed into law. Two were suspended indefinitely by a U.S. District Court judge early last year while lawsuits disputing their constitutionality wind through the court system. House Bill 5 would block abortion based on race, gender or disability of a fetus, and Senate Bill 9 would make an abortion illegal once a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually around eight weeks.
In 2018, Bevin signed into law a measure that would've banned an abortion procedure after 11 weeks, known as a dilation and evacuation. It was challenged in court by the ACLU and blocked from enforcement by a federal judge. Bevin later appealed the judge's decision.
On Tuesday, Elizabeth Kuhn, spokesperson for Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, said Cameron is committed to defending the laws passed by the General Assembly, including the anti-abortion laws currently facing legal challenges.
Cameron, she said, is "working with his legal team to start the process of defending (the dilation and evacuation bill) and will take similar steps in other pro-life cases."
The other two laws from last session remain in place: HB 148 (Fischer's) completely bans the procedure in the commonwealth if the 1973 Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion is overturned, and SB 50 allows doctors to provide the option of abortion reversal pills once an abortion has been induced.
Medical providers have disputed the safety and efficacy of abortion reversal drugs. In early December, University of California, Davis researchers prematurely ended a medical trial testing whether progesterone could effectively halt a medication-based abortion after three of the first dozen female patients had to be hospitalized for severe vaginal bleeding.
(Jack Brammer and Daniel Desrochers contributed to this report.)
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