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Where candidates for Kentucky governor stand on near-total abortion ban

 Attorney General Daniel Cameron, State Auditor Mike Harmon, Somerset Mayor Alan Keck and Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles sit in a line along a table with microphones in front of them. They're all running for governor in the May primary.
Hannah Saad
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WKMS
Attorney General Daniel Cameron, State Auditor Mike Harmon, Somerset Mayor Alan Keck and Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles share their platform ideas at the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce's GOP Gubernatorial Candidate Forum in April.

During Kentucky’s May 16 primary election, voters will weigh in on who should be governor. It’s their first chance to do that since abortion got outlawed in the commonwealth last summer.

State law only allows abortions if there’s a life-threatening health risk to the pregnant patient. That qualifies as one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in America.

The policy, which went into effect after the U.S. Supreme Supreme Court upended abortion rights in the Dobbs decision last summer, means that even people with complicated or nonviable pregnancies often can’t access legal abortions.

Doctors worry that the vagueness of the near-total ban puts pregnant people in danger, and places physicians in a difficult position balancing legal liabilities and the best interests of their patients.

Ahandful of Republican lawmakers in Kentucky have expressed interest in adding exceptions to the ban, but the concept has gotten little traction in the GOP-led legislature.

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who has called Kentucky’s ban “draconian,” has little power to shape abortion policy since the legislature can easily override his vetoes.

Meanwhile a crowded field of Republicans is looking to topple Beshear during his bid for reelection this year – and prominent candidates have expressed little interest in adding exceptions for abortion, even in cases involving rape and incest.

There’s basically no daylight between the major Republican candidates for governor when it comes to their stance on Kentucky’s abortion ban.

University of Louisville political science professor Dewey Clayton indicated that fits with the conventional wisdom about campaign strategy for primaries.

In years like 2023, when there isn’t a U.S. presidential or congressional election, it’s expected most voters who turn out will be from the GOP’s hardcore base, Clayton said. “And more likely than not, their hardcore base will be those who are firmly anti-abortion.”

“I don't see them necessarily differentiating between each other as far as that issue is concerned,” he said of the candidates vying to become the Republican Party’s gubernatorial nominee.

Here’s where Kentucky’s 2023 candidates for governor stand on abortion:

Daniel Cameron

The frontrunner, Attorney General Daniel Cameron, won judicial rulings that let the state’s abortion ban stay in effect until a lawsuit over it is resolved.
At a debate Spectrum News 1 aired in March, he said he fully backs the ban. He also highlighted his defense of it in court.

“Well, I support the current law,” Cameron said. “And I’m proud that since August of last year the abortion facilities have been closed in Kentucky, and there have been very few abortions.”

Kelly Craft

Former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft has been spending millions of dollars and campaigning across the state as she works to close the gap between her and Cameron. Polling shows she’s catching up.

During a recent stop at the Gaslight Diner in Jeffersontown, an attendee asked her about abortion.

“My view of abortion: I am pro-life,” Craft responded. “My exceptions are the life of the mother, the incident of rape and incest…”

Kentucky law does permit abortion if it’s necessary to save a pregnant woman’s life, but abortion remains illegal if a patient seeks one because their pregnancy was caused by rape or incest.

Craft said she’s personally in favor of making an exception for abortion in situations involving rape or incest. But if she’s elected governor, she wouldn’t advocate to add such an exception to Kentucky’s ban.

“I will not be changing the law as it is. I’m just giving you my personal view,” she told the small crowd gathered at the diner.

Ryan Quarles

A recent poll ranked Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles as the third most popular Republican candidate for governor. Like Cameron and Craft, Quarles is a proponent of the state’s abortion ban and isn’t calling for adding exceptions to it.

Quarles’ campaign spokesman, Jake Cox, told LPM News, “Ryan values life from conception to natural death. That’s why he has a plan to fix our broken foster care and adoption systems so that children are able to more quickly find their forever homes.”

Craft similarly talked about wanting to improve Kentucky’s adoption and foster care processes when she discussed abortion in Jeffersontown.

Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones pressed Quarles on the abortion issue during a gubernatorial debate last month.

“The scenario I’m going to give you, I know, is rare. But it does happen,” Jones told Quarles.

He went on to clarify if Quarles would oppose letting someone under 18 years old have an abortion if they were a victim of rape and/or incest.

“Matt, I value all life,” Quarles told him.

Alan Keck

There is an underdog contender who has taken a somewhat different stance, compared to Cameron, Craft and Quarles.

Somerset Mayor Alan Keck told LPM News he’s anti-abortion but doesn’t completely support the current ban.

He thinks exceptions should be added for pregnancies caused by rape and incest.

“I think largely about teenage girls that are assaulted. You know, they've got their whole life ahead of them. I think, you know, we just need to give some grace,” Keck said. “These decisions aren't as black and white as some want to make them.”

He said he struggles with this issue.

“It’s tough. My head and my heart don’t always line up on it,” he said. “It’s something that I remain torn on. But it’s how I feel today, and I respect those that disagree.”

Keck also said he’s open to considering an exception for pregnancies where the fetus is diagnosed with a fatal condition and won’t survive after birth.

State law doesn’t allow abortions for parents facing those circumstances.

Andy Beshear

On the Democratic side, Gov. Andy Beshear is on track to easily win his primary race. He has said he supports some restrictions on abortion, but opposes the current ban.

Beshear’s reelection campaign told LPM News in a statement, “Gov. Beshear has been clear that Kentucky currently has one of the most extreme laws in the country, with no exceptions for survivors of rape and incest. Kentuckians know that this is too extreme and rejected a similar constitutional amendment last November.”

The Beshear campaign was referencing Amendment 2, which would have changed the Kentucky Constitution to specify that it doesn’t protect a right to abortion.

Where reproductive healthcare meets politics

So, why does it matter what a candidate for Kentucky governor thinks of the commonwealth’s abortion ban?

The power to pass or change abortion laws lies with the Kentucky Legislature, after all. And the governor’s veto is powerless against the state Senate and House of Representatives’ Republican supermajorities.

The Legislature passed the state’s main abortion ban in 2019. It finally took effect until last summer, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling and let states outlaw abortion.

At this point, University of Kentucky political science professor Stephen Voss said the governor can’t do much to change abortion policy in the commonwealth.

“Executives have some flexibility within the bounds of laws that have been passed,” he said. “But if they stray too far from what's on the books, then they face lawsuits that they're likely to lose.”

What a governor does have is influence, Voss said. Especially if they share the same party as most state lawmakers.

“Having a governor willing to put his or her backing behind, you know, changes in the regulations … that’s exactly the sort of politician who can bring about change,” he said.

However, it doesn’t look like the top three candidates in the Republican primary would push for amending the current law at all.

They’re fine with Kentucky’s near-total abortion ban, just the way it is.

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Morgan is LPM's health & environment reporter. Email Morgan at mwatkins@lpm.org.