Kentucky: Reproductive Rights and Abortion Banned in the Bluegrass State

We are on a tour through the United States to discuss reproductive care and rights, region by region, state by state. We started this following the recent Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decision on the Dobbs versus Jackson Womens Health Organization abortion case this past June. This case reversed the Roe v Wade decision of 1973, following almost a 50 year process of chipping away at abortion rights, since the time of Roe. The chipping away of abortion rights accelerated with the SCOTUS decision on Casey versus Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania case in 1992. Since that time, many US states have gone all out to protect the right to choose, in some cases even channeling state funds to provide out-of-state abortion seekers, not only with abortion care, but also with travel and lodging costs. Unfortunately, there also are numerous states that have used the Dobbs decision to move strongly against abortion rights. This latter group includes the state that we’re visiting today, Kentucky, the Bluegrass state.

Kentucky is in a region of the US in which court systems often have countered legislative actions and actions by anti-choice governors and attorneys general. Whereas Kentucky’s neighbor, Ohio, did not allow a 10 year-old rape victim to have an abortion this past summer, Ohio now allows abortion, due to its state Supreme Court upholding an injunction against the law that prohibited care for the girl. She ended up receiving treatment in neighboring Indiana, which also borders on Kentucky and which also passed a harsh ban on abortion. But Indiana’s court system too has acted to preserve abortion rights for the time being.

To the south in Kentucky, however, prohibiting abortion, with no exceptions for rape is in effect. In the Bluegrass state, you cannot receive, either a  medication abortion (which, where legal, you could have up to gestational day 77, the end of the 11th week of pregnancy) or a procedural abortion. There are exceptions for when the mother’s life is in extreme danger, but the Kentucky law, like similar laws in other states, is so vague about which circumstances would be considered harmful to the mother’s life that you cannot be sure if anybody would help you, if you were in such a situation. This means that care for life-threatening pregnancy complications are in jeopardy in Kentucky. In contrast with Kentucky’s two northern neighbors, despite a challenge against the ban put forth in the Kentucky court system that will be reviewed by the Kentucky Supreme Court, the Kentucky Supreme Court is allowing the ban to remain in effect, until the case is decided. This is the opposite of what should have happened in such a case and it suggests a hostile attitude in the Kentucky Supreme Court against abortion.

But like neighboring Indiana, Kentucky is one of a handful of states in which groups are suing to challenge such bans on the basis of religious freedom. Three Jewish women in Kentucky are plaintiffs in such a lawsuit challenging the Kentucky law. This is because Jewish teaching places the preservation of life and health of the mother above all other considerations. Along with Islam, many other religious traditions, secular common sense —and, by the way, science— Judaism recognizes that sentience and personhood do not begin in one swift moment, but develop in stages over an extended period of time. In the Covenant Code, which is thought to be the oldest legal text in the Hebrew Bible and likely derives directly from the law code of King Hammurabi of Babylon, an embryo/fetus is treated basically as the property of whichever male has legal status over the pregnant woman. In the Babylonian Talmud, however, which took shape during Judaism’s formative centuries (late Antiquity to early Middle Ages), there’s recognition of the progressive nature of development in the womb. Up to 40 days into pregnancy, the embryo is considered to be “like water”, meaning that it has no status as a life form. It’s less important than a farm animal, for instance, or the family cat or dog. Then, it has a more elevated status from 40 days until birth, specifically when the head comes out of the mother, and then Judaism has some issues concerning the first few weeks of life, after delivery. The point is that idea of an embryo, or fetus, being a person, with human rights, throughout pregnancy is not universal. It’s a minority religious belief, attached to certain factions of Christianity, and thus has no business influencing secular law.

Given the hostility of the Bluegrass state toward abortion, if you wish to end your pregnancy you must travel to must travel to another state. As of the writing of this post in mid October 2022, you have options in Ohio and Indiana. This includes the Cincinnati metropolitan area, right on the Kentucky border, not particularly far from the Lexington and Louisville areas. Illinois has a particularly large number of abortion providers, but very few are located in the southern part of the state, so be aware that you may need to head for the Chicago area. If you are in eastern Kentucky, the state of Virginia is on the radar screen too, but again you need to drive to the more populated areas.

David Warmflash
Dr. David Warmflash is a science communicator and physician with a research background in astrobiology and space medicine. He has completed research fellowships at NASA Johnson Space Center, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brandeis University. Since 2002, he has been collaborating with The Planetary Society on experiments helping us to understand the effects of deep space radiation on life forms, and since 2011 has worked nearly full time in medical writing and science journalism. His focus area includes the emergence of new biotechnologies and their impact on biomedicine, public health, and society.

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