Betsy Nowland-Curry

(WOMENSENEWS)–When the Kentucky Commission on Women last summer released a wide-ranging report on what the state needed to do to improve women’s lives, staffers expected a struggle for the means to carry out its recommendations in lean times.

What the agency didn’t expect was to face the possibility of losing its $270,000-a-year in state funding altogether.

The commission, one of the oldestcontinuously running state-sponsored groups dedicated solely to representing women’s interests, is the targeted subject of two bills that could find their way to the floor of the Kentucky House of Representatives when the General Assembly opens session in January.

One bill–filed by Stan Lee, a Republican representative from Lexington, who says the agency promotes abortion–would prohibit state agencies from giving information on birth control “if the program presents a pro-choice view of reproductive issues, unless equal representation is given to a pro-life view of reproductive issues.” The other bill would prohibit use of public money for “programs which educate, counsel or encourage a woman in the use of abortion as a birth control method.”

Meanwhile, the election last month of the first Republican governor in 32 years puts the future of the governor-appointed commission in even-more immediate limbo. If Governor-elect Ernie Fletcher decides to discontinue funding the organization, which by law is attached to the governor’s office, the commission would cease to exist. Fletcher opposes reproductive rights, but he has said that he supports some of the commission’s objectives, including raising the economic status of Kentucky’s women.

Lori Kidwell, the commission’s communications director, says the commission hasn’t heard anything yet about its future. After his inauguration tomorrow Fletcher could name a new executive director or fire the commission’s staff altogether.

“We have not heard a thing,” Kidwell said. “In all honesty, we have not received any indication if there will be any changes.”

Nonetheless, supporters of the 39-year-old commission–long a champion of reproductive rights–are worried. “We are girding our loins and getting ready for the fight,” said Representative Kathy Stein, a Democrat from Lexington.

A New Vision

In its report last summer, “A New Vision for Kentucky: The Final Report of the Governor’s Task Force on the Economic Status of Kentucky’s Women,” the commission offered some sobering statistics about women in the state. Kentucky ranked as the third-worst state for women based on factors such as economic autonomy, earnings, political participation, health and reproductive rights. Kentucky ranked 49 among the 50 states in the number of women with bachelor’s degrees. More than half of households headed by women in Kentucky have incomes below $15,000 a year.

The task force, authorized by outgoing Governor Paul Patton, a Democrat, and coordinated by the commission, issued nearly 40 pages of plans to improve those rankings. Several committees–comprised of hundreds of political, education and community leaders–made ambitious recommendations that would require considerable time, organization and money to implement.

The task force proposed redefining the formula used to measure poverty; enacting a state earned income tax credit; increasing the state’s dependent child care credit and expanding the number of people covered by state health insurance programs.

In addition, it recommended passing a state law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation; strengthening enforcement of anti-discrimination laws; creating a state family-leave program that requires partial wage replacement for leave time and requiring insurance plans that cover prescription drugs to cover contraceptives. It also urged the state to make contraceptives available to the uninsured.

The task force also urged the state to eliminate legal barriers to abortion. Kentucky law prohibits emergency-room workers from discussing abortion with rape victims, requires a 24-hour waiting period before abortions may be performed and mandates parental consent. Nationwide, 17 states prevent some state employees from referring women to abortion services, 32 states enforce parental notification laws and 18 states enforce waiting period requirements, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Abortion Stance Draws Ire

While the abortion-related recommendations drew criticism from some conservatives, the initial response to the report was overwhelmingly positive, said Betsy Nowland-Curry, the commission’s executive director. Legislators–both Republican and Democrat–offered support, added Ann Ferrell, a project manager with the commission.

Then, letters began appearing in the opinion pages of the state’s two largest newspapers, The Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal, alleging the commission was overstepping its bounds by advocating abortion rights. Some letters, many written by anti-choice activists, accused the commission of a bias that pervaded everything from the organization’s group of e-mail list recipients to the commission’s choice of organizations included in its conferences.

“It seems to us that the Kentucky Commission on Women and all the actions that they have taken make them the Kentucky Commission of Pro-Choice Women,” said Kent Ostrander, executive director of the Lexington-based Family Foundation of Kentucky. His organization had asked the Kentucky Executive Branch Ethics Commission to look into the commission after receiving complaints.

After its investigation, the state’s ethics panel ruled that the commission could take stands “only so far as such communication does not give an appearance of partisan, political activity not directly related to its mission.”

Nowland-Curry said the commission is simply fulfilling its mission to improve the status of women and uphold the law, including those pertaining to reproductive rights. “We make no bones about being a pro-choice organization,” she said.

Ostrander said a state agency should at least reflect two sides to the abortion debate.

“An agency that is paid for with tax dollars and is said to represent the women of Kentucky should be broad enough to include a majority of the women. There are plenty of studies that show a majority of Kentuckians, including women, would approve some sort of restrictions on abortion,” he said. “This was part of the (former Governor) Patton agenda. He was very pro-abortion–and I’ll say it that way, not just pro-choice–and the Commission on Women reflected that.”

The commission and its supporters reject a “pro-abortion” label. Nowland-Curry said the commission in no way encourages abortion. “Of course we don’t do that,” she said. “We don’t encourage it. We don’t counsel individuals.”

That distinction between favoring abortion and favoring the right to abortion could be a deciding factor in whether Kentucky keeps its commission.

“If (Lee) can convince enough Republicans and Democrats that somehow the Commission on Women is promoting abortion–which of course, it is not, never has and never will–then he might have some ability to harm the Commission on Women,” said Kathy Stein said, the Democratic representative from Lexington.

For now, the commission is planning ahead. It has enlisted several other groups, including the League of Women Voters of Kentucky and the Kentucky Women’s Political Caucus, to help with various initiatives. And regional meetings across the state are planned to discuss making the task force’s recommendations a reality.

“There’s a lot of energy to make these things happen,” said the commission’s Ferrell. “Everyone wants to continue to make it happen.”

Karen Shugart is a journalist in Georgia.

For more information:

Kentucky Commission on Women:

Kentucky Commission on Women–
“A New Vision for Kentucky: The Final Report of the Governor’s Task Force on the Economic Status of Kentucky’s Women”
(Adobe PDF format):

The Family Foundation of Kentucky–
“State funds push radical agenda:
The Kentucky Commission on Women found
advocating left-wing, feminist ideas”: