Ahead of a crucial vote on abortion rights in Kentucky, local print newspapers are failing to highlight widespread support for abortion access in the state.
In the November 8 midterm election, Kentucky will vote on Amendment 2 to the state constitution that, if passed, would rid Kentuckians of the constitutional right to an abortion. The ballot measure asks, “Are you in favor of amending the Constitution of Kentucky by creating a new Section of the Constitution to be numbered Section 26A to state as follows: To protect human life, nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to secure or protect a right to abortion or require the funding of abortion?” The state Republicans want to add Amendment 2 to the state constitution, which would specify that the right to an abortion is not enshrined in Kentucky law and bar judges ruling on the legality of abortion restrictions from interpreting a constitutional right to abortion access.
Kentucky’s ballot referendum comes at an especially pivotal time for restoring and securing abortion rights across the country. When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, trigger laws in 13 states, including Kentucky, quickly went into effect, banning or severely restricting abortion access. Under the Kentucky trigger ban, nearly all abortions are illegal in the state with the sole exception of extreme health risks to the pregnant person and no flexibility for those seeking abortions for rape or incest. Soon after the ban took effect, advocacy groups effectively motioned to pause it, but a Kentucky judge reinstituted the ban on August 1. The Kentucky Supreme Court will hold oral arguments regarding the trigger law’s constitutionality on November 15, likely weighing the ballot measure’s results in its final consideration of the law.
Kentucky isn't the only state with a ballot measure on abortion this Election Day; voters in California, Michigan, and Vermont will also decide the fate of abortion rights in their states. Additionally, Montana will be voting on an anti-abortion measure that aims to declare “that an embryo or fetus is a legal person with a right to medical care if born prematurely or survives an attempted abortion." Earlier this year, an anti-abortion measure in Kansas, similar to that of Kentucky, was resoundingly defeated by a nearly 20-point margin in what was widely considered to be an upset victory.
Media Matters reviewed print articles about Kentucky’s proposed Amendment 2 published between August 2 and November 3 from 24 Kentucky-based print newspapers. Each article was coded for inclusion of pro-abortion and anti-abortion voices, inclusion of text from Amendment 2, mention of abortion support among Kentuckians, and mention of the legal status of abortion rights.
Media Matters found that 92% of articles covering the proposed amendment failed to contextualize that though polling on Amendment 2 itself isn’t widely available, data shows a vast majority of Kentuckians support some degree of abortion access. A 2019 poll commissioned by Planned Parenthood showed that 65% of Kentuckians should have access to “all of the reproductive health care options available, including abortion.” In response to a specific question about abortion access, only 18% of respondents said that all abortions should be illegal.
Similarly, a 2019 Public Policy Polling survey found that 59% of Kentucky voters “believe abortion should be legal and that the government should not prevent a woman from making the decision whether or not to have an abortion for herself.” A 2022 poll from the Democratic Governors Association suggests that “the vast majority of Kentuckians oppose a total abortion ban, and that they generally oppose the state’s current law.”
Our review also found that the majority of articles included pro-choice voices (67%) compared to anti-choice voices (58%). For instance, The Lexington Herald-Ledger included an interview with Rachel Sweet, the campaign manager of Protect Kentucky Access, describing the way that this amendment would “pave the way for a permanent ban on abortion with no exceptions.”
Two-thirds (67%) of articles reviewed also included text from the amendment. Given the gravity of the abortion amendment, it’s especially imperative that all coverage of the upcoming ballot measure includes the text of the proposed constitutional amendment.
On the other hand, 88% of articles reviewed did note that nearly all abortions are currently illegal in Kentucky, a crucial piece of context in the story of Amendment 2. For example, reporter Deborah Yetter for The Courier Journal highlighted the state GOP’s extreme position:
[State Rep. Nancy] Tate and other lawmakers who spoke said it should be up to legislators, not judges, to permit abortion or determine whether laws should make exceptions for certain circumstances.
But under current laws enacted by the GOP-dominated General Assembly, including the "trigger law," abortion is illegal in Kentucky with exceptions only for medical emergencies and none for rape, incest or severe fetal anomalies. Those laws took effect after the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24 struck down the federal right to abortion.
Media Matters searched articles in the Factiva database for the following Kentucky print newspapers: Daily News, Lane Report, Louisville Business First, Louisville Eccentric Observer, Messenger-Inquirer, Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, Sentinel-News, The Advocate-Messenger, The Commonwealth Journal, The Courier Journal, The Daily Independent, The Gleaner, The Harlan Daily Enterprise, The Jessamine Journal, The Ledger Independent, The Lexington Herald Leader, The Messenger, The Middlesboro Daily News, The News-Enterprise, The Richmond Register, The Sentinel Echo, The State Journal, The Times-Tribune, and The Winchester Sun for any of the terms “abortion,” “referendum,” “women’s health,” “women’s rights,” “Amendment 2,” or “HB 91” in the headline or lead paragraph from August 2, 2022, through November 3, 2022.
We included articles, which we defined as instances when the Kentucky constitutional Amendment 2, the “No Right to Abortion in Constitution Amendment,” was mentioned in the headline or lead paragraph and discussed in the body of the article. We included news articles and excluded editorials, op-eds, letters to the editor, and other non-news content.
We then reviewed all qualifying articles about the constitutional amendment for whether they included pro-abortion voices, anti-abortion voices, or text from the amendment and for whether they mentioned that abortion is currently illegal and inaccessible in Kentucky and that a majority of Kentuckians support abortion access.