Kentucky lawmakers have been hard at work to erode access to abortion in the state — long before the leak of a draft opinion on May 2 indicating the U.S. Supreme Court might overturn Roe v. Wade and remove federal protections for abortion as early as June.
In April, the Republican-led legislature overrode Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto to pass a law that halted abortions statewide. The law was in place for more than a week before a federal judge stepped in to block the bill with a temporary restraining order.
People in Kentucky can now access abortion in one of the state’s two clinics that provide them. But many advocates for abortion rights fear the experience is a shadow of what’s to come if Roe falls.
“We’re all staring down the barrel of how much more time do we even have left,” said Stevie Benge, a medical receptionist at Planned Parenthood’s Louisville health center.
While the Supreme Court’s decision is not yet final, protests have erupted nationwide in the wake of the news, including in Kentucky, which is one of 13 states where a trigger law would ban abortion automatically if Roe falls. More than 200 people marched through the streets of downtown Louisville on May 4, protesting the potential end of Roe.
Roughly half of all states are certain or likely to ban or severely restrict access to abortion if given the chance.
That means most people in the Midwest won’t have access in their states.
“The inevitability is eventually that anyone that wants an abortion is going to have to go to Illinois,” Benge said.
That’s because Illinois is likely one of the only states in the Midwest where abortion will still be allowed if Roe is overturned.
Illinois is getting ready – hiring staff and opening more clinics, said Megan Jeyifo, director of the Chicago Abortion Fund, which provides financial, logistical and emotional support for people coming to Illinois for abortions.
The organization typically gets about 500 calls a month from people seeking help getting abortions in the state, which she said is roughly double what it was last year.
When access was cut off for that week in April in Kentucky, Jeyifo and her team saw an uptick in calls from people there.
The number of people traveling to Illinois from other states has steadily risen over the past five years to about 10,000 a year, according to data from Illinois’ public health department.
“People are coming into Illinois from as far as Texas, from as far as Kentucky, just all across the nation right now,” Jeyifo said.
Planned Parenthood of Illinois CEO and President Jennifer Welch told The Chicago Tribune she expects between 20,000 and 30,000 additional patients a year seeking abortions in the state if Roe is overturned.
Efforts to ban abortion in Kentucky date back years
The more than 70-page bill passed by the Republican-led legislature last month included restrictions on minors and abortion medication, and bans abortion at 15 weeks.
Kentucky state Sen. Stephen Meredith, one of 107 state lawmakers who voted to override the governor’s veto of that 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.”
Although the law doesn’t specifically ban abortions, providers said they were forced to halt the service because they couldn’t comply with new regulations not yet in place.
The federal judge who temporarily blocked the bill will soon consider its constitutionality.
In 2019, the Kentucky legislature passed a law that would automatically ban abortions if Roe is overturned, only allowing them if a pregnant patient is at risk of death or permanent impairment. That same year, the legislature passed a law banning abortion around six weeks, which is currently blocked in court.
In November, Kentucky voters will decide whether to pass a constitutional amendment, which would remove any protections for abortion in the state.
During the week abortions were blocked in Kentucky, Benge said many patients the Planned Parenthood’s Louisville Center were not aware that their choices had shifted dramatically.
“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 patient they spoke with cried.
Working with Planned Parenthood clinics in Indiana, the Louisville provider tried to ease the burden by continuing to provide pre-abortion consultations in town so that people seeking an abortion wouldn’t have to stay multiple days out of state.
Brenda Rosen, executive director at the Kentucky chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, which advocates for human rights and reproductive justice, said the leaked Supreme Court opinion has caused panic among clients.
“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.”
Concerns about what the end of Roe could mean for the most vulnerable
Among the hundreds of people who gathered in downtown Louisville on May 4 to protest the potential end of Roe was Summer Dickerson, founder of Women of the Well Ministry, an organization that aims to raise awareness about human trafficking and domestic violence.
Dickerson said she’s a survivor of human trafficking and had an abortion after learning she was pregnant by her trafficker.
“I was protecting my baby, in my eyes,” Dickerson said. “And as much as that affected me, 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 judgement call for me and my child and then to be judged for that as well … it’s not OK.”
She said 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.”
Being forced to travel across state lines to get an abortion will be difficult for many of the patients the Planned Parenthood clinic in Louisville serves, Benge said. Many are low income and may not have their own car.
“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,” she said. “And then suddenly they’re thinking about having to have an abortion and then taking a bus home.”
Providers say abortion bans that take effect in states like Kentucky in the wake of Roe will disproportionately affect young people and other already-vulnerable populations — like people of color and those with low or no income.
They may not have funds to pay for an abortion, a way to travel or the freedom to take multiple days off work.
Jeyifo, with the Chicago Abortion Fund, says existing restrictions already harm these groups by making abortion costly and clinics hard to reach.
“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.”
A final Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade is expected to come in June or July.
WFPL Reporter Ryan Van Velzer contributed reporting. This story comes from a partnership between WFPL and Side Effects Public Media — a public health news collaborative based at WFYI. Follow Aprile on Twitter @Aperoll27.