Abortion among big issues at stake in battle for control of Kentucky House

jcheves@herald-leader.comJanuary 18, 2014 

FRANKFORT — Kentucky's high-dollar, low-blow U.S. Senate race will get most of the headlines this year, but it's the battle for control of the Kentucky House that might alter the lives of Kentuckians almost immediately.

If Republicans take the House in November, a goal requiring five more of the chamber's 100 seats, a wide range of laws would probably change within months, but none likely faster than those concerning women's access to abortion.

Every year, anti-abortion bills sail out of the Republican-led Senate with huge majorities, only to get stuck in the House Health and Welfare Committee alongside anti-abortion bills filed in the House.

Chairman Tom Burch, D-Louisville, is pro-choice, as is more than half of his committee. Burch keeps anti-abortion bills off the House floor, shielding the Democratic majority from votes that many prefer to avoid.

But a Republican House speaker backed by a GOP majority would change all that, say anti-abortion lawmakers and activists. Kentucky could start passing new restrictions on abortion, joining states like Texas and Arkansas, where the subject is a constant source of debate and lawsuits.

"It would be one of the greatest blessings of our lives," said Margie Montgomery, executive director of the Kentucky Right to Life Association.

"We have the votes. We have a pro-life state," Montgomery said. "And we have lawmakers who are chomping at the bit to pass these laws as soon as they're given the chance."

Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who leaves office at the end of next year, is moderate on social issues and might veto some anti-abortion bills. However, a majority of both legislative chambers could vote to override any veto by Beshear. He would not be much of an obstacle for a Republican-led House and Senate.

If Kentucky jumps into the abortion controversy, it would follow the national trend. In recent years, as the U.S. Supreme Court upheld women's right to end their pregnancies, the political fight shifted away from Washington and toward the 50 state capitals.

More than 200 state laws passed around the country since 2010 have chipped away at access — shutting abortion clinics with stricter licensing requirements; driving up medical costs for patients; requiring multiple visits, counseling and fetal ultrasound viewing; and banning abortion in both earlier and later stages of pregnancy, among other approaches.

'Look at Texas'

With state-by-state battles raging, women's access to abortion depends a lot on where they live.

In Southern and Western states that have Republican-majority legislatures, restrictions are most severe. In the Northeast and on the West Coast, where Democrats run most legislatures, access is less restricted, if not protected outright by state and local laws.

For example, North Dakota banned abortions as early as six weeks after fertilization, before many women even realize they are pregnant. It's also putting a measure on the ballot in November asking voters to approve "personhood" rights that start at the moment of conception, potentially banning not just abortions but also some infertility treatments and stem cell research.

At the same time, Massachusetts established 35-foot "no-protest" buffer zones around abortion clinics to make visits easier for patients.

Both of those laws have been challenged in federal courts, as have many others related to abortion.

Only five states divide their legislatures between the two political parties, allowing neither complete control. Kentucky is one of those.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what would happen if Republicans get hold of this place," Burch said last week, sitting on the House floor.

"Just look at states where Republicans control everything," Burch said. "Look at Texas. That will be us. Our Senate pops out these abortion bills without even reading them, and they come to die in a House committee. That won't happen anymore. Now they'll be our laws."

Abortions on decline

Abortions already are too hard to get in Kentucky for a legal medical procedure, said Derek Selznick, Reproductive Freedom Project Director at the ACLU of Kentucky.

The state is 380 miles wide but has only two abortion clinics — one in Louisville that operates five days a week and another in Lexington that operates two days a week.

The Louisville clinic, at a busy downtown intersection, often is surrounded by sidewalk protesters whom patients must walk past. Costs range from $650 to $2,000, Selznick said. And that all has to be paid out-of-pocket because state law prohibits private insurance plans or Medicaid from covering abortion.

"When you're talking about someone making minimum wage and maybe with one or two children already, they have to scramble to raise those funds. Some of them have to run around and sell their personal items to get the money," Selznick said.

"Meanwhile, as they're doing this, time is passing, and they're getting farther along in their pregnancies, which complicates things," he said. "Then they have to drive all day from Paducah or Pikeville to actually get to a clinic."

Kentucky requires women to get state-directed abortion counseling 24 hours before the procedure, although that can be done by telephone rather than in person unless the law is changed, as some lawmakers want. Also, parents must give consent for an abortion for their underage daughters unless a judge intervenes on the girl's behalf.

Kentucky passed a "spousal notification" law in 1982 requiring doctors to inform husbands within 30 days if their wives have an abortion, unless one of the partners has filed for divorce. But it's not clear how often that law is obeyed or enforced.

Meanwhile, the number of abortions in Kentucky — and the nation — generally has declined.

There were 3,929 abortions in Kentucky in 2010, down from a high of 11,631 in 1988, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

It's difficult to say why that's true with any certainty, but research reports indicate widespread use of birth control, including by Kentucky teenagers. Fifty-two percent of the state's high school students report having sex, but a majority of those say they use birth control, and there has been a 37 percent drop in the state's teen birth rate since 1991.

Stifled voices

At present, Kentucky falls in the middle of the 50 states for its scope of abortion restrictions.

Anti-abortion lawmakers in Frankfort want more.

In 2013, the House Health and Welfare Committee bottled up five proposed restrictions, including one that would make it a misdemeanor to perform abortions in most cases if a fetal heartbeat could be detected; another that would ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy; and another that would require fetal ultrasounds for women before they could get an abortion.

Similar bills are starting through the legislative process this winter.

Rep. Joe Fischer, R-Fort Thomas, sponsors many of these bills and sometimes tries to attach them as amendments to other measures in the House. Fischer currently has two amendments proposing a ban on most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy — which he calls "the Kentucky Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act" — that are waiting on the House floor for a domestic violence prevention bill that House Democratic leaders strongly support.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he's likely to rule that Fischer's amendments are "not germane," or not relevant to the original legislation, and therefore can be ignored.

That's happened before to Fischer. In an interview last week, he didn't mask his frustration at being so frequently thwarted.

"There is no question that a majority of the (House) members sitting here are pro-life. But their voice has been stifled for the last 10 years because we've not been able to bring a bill to the floor since the fetal homicide bill in 2004," Fischer said.

Opinion polls suggest that Americans living in the south-central U.S. — Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas — hold the strongest anti-abortion views, with 52 percent telling the Pew Research Center in 2013 that abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. No other region of the country had an anti-abortion majority in Pew's poll. Overall, 54 percent of Americans said abortion should be legal in most or all cases.

"This is a solidly pro-life state, even if you don't see it reflected in what happens here in the House," Fischer said. "But elections ultimately will decide the issue."

John Cheves: (859) 231-3266. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com

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