How Three Kentucky Women Are Fighting for Reproductive Rights in Their State

Three hours east of Louisville, Kentucky, through old mining towns in the strip-mined Appalachian Hills, tucked behind a string of empty law offices, sits Hazard’s newest—and only—coffee shop.

Most days, Michelle Lawson, 33, sips an iced tea there in her preferred armchair, with a clear view of the door. Strapped to her chest is a white purse with rainbow letters spelling out Kate Spade. Inside is lip gloss, a Lisa Frank phone case gifted by her daughter, and, as of last month, a handgun.

Lawson has lived in the hollers of Hazard for her whole life, so it was a surprise when she started receiving death threats in her town of 4,900. “Hey, you murderous bitch,” a deep voice echoed from her phone. “If law enforcement doesn’t hold you accountable, we will. Watch yourself.”

Lawson is a lawyer who recently went viral for offering pro bono services to Kentucky women providing or obtaining abortions following the overturn of Roe v. Wade. She wasn’t even aware that her tweet was public until the 35,000 likes started pouring in, or else she likely wouldn’t have included the direct line to her office.

“I expected maybe 20 people to see that tweet, to be honest with you,” she says, her soft Kentucky drawl difficult to hear over the coffee shop’s pulsing techno. She’s helped advise around 20 callers since and expects that number to rise.

Lawson spent years at an Appalachian nonprofit, offering legal aid in domestic-violence cases. That job had its fair share of threats too, but this was different. People would call and pretend to thank her, only to spew vitriol once they’d passed her secretary. They haven’t dissuaded Lawson, though; in fact, their violent anger has only reaffirmed the need for her work.

Kentucky has one of the highest domestic-violence rates in the country; in 2010, more than half of the state’s women reported being raped by their current or former intimate partner. It is a reality that is closely linked to accessing reproductive care and one Lawson knows personally. Plan B was her saving grace when she woke up to discover she’d been raped in her sleep by her ex-husband seven years ago. “Domestic violence is as much of a pandemic for us as anything else is,” she says. “When you talk about abortion, you can’t miss talking about domestic violence.”

Lawson believes the fallout from ambiguous abortion policies could have a significant impact on Kentucky families. In the near future, she may also have to argue cases she’d never expected, determining, for instance, whether frozen embryos could be considered humans in divorce cases.

Kentuckians knew the game of abortion politics long before Roe fell. For years, there have only been three abortion providers in the entire state and a dearth of ob-gyns per capita. But now the game has new rules that even the experts don’t understand. Take a look at Amendment 2 on the November ballot, the proposal to ban constitutional protections for abortions in Kentucky, and you’ll have a hard time making out the difference between yes and no—no matter what side you’re on. “It reads like it’s purposefully confusing,” Lawson says.

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