Are GOP hopefuls Daniel Cameron, Russell Coleman shifting on abortion exceptions?

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron speaking at the office of Kentucky Youth Advocates in 2020, with then-U.S. Attorney Russell Coleman to his left.
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron speaking at the office of Kentucky Youth Advocates in 2020, with then-U.S. Attorney Russell Coleman to his left.
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Much like the ground has shifted on abortion policy since the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade last summer, so too have the positions and rhetoric of two key Republican candidates in Kentucky this year when it comes to exceptions for the state's near-total ban on abortion.

Republican Attorney General and gubernatorial nominee Daniel Cameron and GOP attorney general nominee Russell Coleman were both endorsed by major anti-abortion groups, appearing to tell Kentucky Right to Life in its questionnaire there should continue to be no exceptions for rape and incest in Kentucky's abortion bans.

Despite his repeated public statements that he supports Kentucky's abortion bans as written and defending them in court, Cameron was the first of the two to veer off course in a Sept. 18 radio interview, saying there was "no question" he would sign a bill to add rape and incest exceptions.

Cameron's comment came weeks after the campaign of Gov. Andy Beshear, his Democratic opponent, began airing ads hitting him for opposing rape and incest exceptions. Two days after Cameron's apparent reversal on the issue, Beshear went on the offensive again, running an ad featuring a woman who was raped and impregnated by her stepfather as a child, saying directly to Cameron: "To tell a 12-year-old girl she must have the baby of her stepfather who raped her is unthinkable."

A week later, audio of Cameron at a campaign event surfaced where he said he would only sign such a bill if the courts forced the state to do so, though he told Bill Bryant of WKYT-TV in an interview last week that he would sign a rape and incest exception bill into law even if the court system was not a factor.

Also last week Coleman — who also gave "100% ProLife Responses" to the Kentucky Right to Life questionnaire and has expressed public support for the state's abortion bans — turned heads with his comments on the issue, telling Spectrum News he supports adding a rape and incest exception and asking the Kentucky General Assembly to "take a hard look at that issue."

Without such exceptions in place, Coleman said, "We would re-traumatize these women by forcing them to have a child that was conceived out of rape or out of incest."

Asked how that answer was consistent with one he gave to Kentucky Right to Life on its questionnaire, Coleman said in an emailed statement that he "had never stated nor been specifically asked whether the General Assembly should amend our pro-life laws."

"After listening to prosecutors, crime victims and my family, I made a statement that I believe the law should be amended to include exceptions for rape and incest in addition to the existing exception for life and health of the mother," Coleman said, adding that is "a mainstream position consistent with my faith that I believe most Kentuckians share, including so many who consider themselves pro-life."

This position is a clear break from the one advocated by anti-abortion groups that endorsed Coleman. That includes Kentucky Right to Life, which — after stating that abortion "only compounds the initial violence of the rape" and is an irrational killing of an innocent child — asked in its candidate questionnaire: "Do you believe that a child conceived as a result of sexual assault should be protected by the same laws protecting the lives of children conceived naturally?"

Coleman and Kentucky Right to Life have declined to share if he answered yes or no to that question, though group Executive Director Addia Wuchner has indicated the group only gives such an endorsement if a candidate answers all questions correctly.

Coleman has also broken with Cameron on a different abortion-related issue, telling The Courier Journal this week he would not have signed the same letter the Kentucky attorney general joined this summer with 19 other GOP state attorneys general, which opposed a proposed federal privacy rule to block state officials from obtaining information on residents' reproductive health care services obtained outside the state.

The Biden administration rule change was advanced in part due to concerns about "instituted or threatened" investigations of patient information from states where abortion remains legal. But the GOP letter said the HIPAA amendment would unlawfully interfere with states’ authority to enforce their laws and was an administration attempt to "wrest control over abortion back from the people in defiance of the Constitution and" the Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade.

Coleman stated in an email to The Courier Journal he would not have joined the letter, adding: "I've been clear about my priorities as Attorney General: I will put violent criminals and drug traffickers behind bars where they belong and protect Kentucky families from the reckless Biden administration."

Abortion opponents stand by current ban and GOP candidates

Several national and state opponents of abortion have stepped forward during the debate over the past month to express their full support of Kentucky law having no exceptions for rape and incest — though none have specifically taken Cameron or Coleman to task over their most recent positions.

Asked if the recent statements of Cameron and Coleman on this issue are consistent the questionnaire answers they gave to win the group's endorsements, Wuchner of Kentucky Right to Life reiterated the group's opposition to rape and incest exceptions — saving her only criticism for Beshear over his campaign's ads highlighting the issue.

"The humanity of the child is not lessened by the circumstances of their conception," Wuchner said in an email. "The child becomes the second victim of a sexual assault that results in a new life being created."

Wuchner said her organization stands by its endorsed candidates, who "share our values and will protect the sanctity of life in our Commonwealth," countering that Beshear's ads are "using this extremely personal and traumatic situation to commercialize the issue into political volley. "

"We find this political commercialization insulting to women and victims of such seriously grave offenses," Wuchner said. She added the state needs leaders who "examine the impunities that contribute to the continued perpetuation of sexual violence in our communities and in our culture."

Another national anti-abortion group opposed to rape and incest exceptions that endorsed both candidates is Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. Sue Swayze Leibel, the group's director of policy affairs, was at a conference of social conservatives in Kentucky on Saturday, where the Lexington Herald Leader reported she slammed candidates who change their positions on abortion for political expediency.

“Unfortunately, we’re seeing some reshuffling of the deck,” Leibel said, seated next to Wuchner and state Rep. Nancy Tate, R-Brandenburg, a strong abortion opponent. “And we’re seeing some elected leaders who were staunchly pro-life before, reading the polls, or what they think the polls say, and some are watering down their views for political reasons.”

Asked by The Courier Journal if SBA Pro-Life America is concerned about their endorsed candidates Cameron and Coleman shifting stances on rape and incest exceptions, state public affairs director Kelsey Pritchard only replied in an email that Leibel was taken "out of context," as she "was not referring to Mr. Cameron, but was speaking about what we have seen nationally."

Following Cameron's public reversal last month, Family Foundation of Kentucky Executive Director David Walls told WLEX18 the group remains supportive of the current ban as written, as "pre-born children should not be made into second victims and these tragic situations" and "should not have his or her human dignity attacked because of an evil act."

'The baby as a blessing'

Several other GOP members of the state House have stepped up on social media to defend Kentucky's lack of rape and incest exceptions, though none have directly criticized Cameron or Coleman.

Responding to a video of Walls' comments, state Rep. Savannah Maddox, R-Dry Ridge, posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter: "Either you believe that pre-born human life is made in God’s image, or you don’t. Thank you for not departing from this fundamental truth."

Asked this week if she is concerned about Cameron and Coleman changing their positions on this issue, Maddox responded only that “expansion of abortion ban exceptions beyond the life of the mother nullifies the premise that all innocent life, including the unborn, is worth protecting.”

State Rep. Emily Callaway, R-Louisville, issued numerous posts on X the evening that Coleman's support of rape and incest exceptions was made public, also standing up for the law as written.

"Killing your baby is traumatic," Callaway wrote. "To say you don't want to re-traumatize a woman who has been r4ped so it's okay to have an ab0rtion is nonsense. How about we help her see the baby as a blessing. Many victimized women testify they are just that. Ending life shouldn't be an option."

Callaway noted in another post that she was referring directly to Coleman's remarks, but was still supporting him in his race against Democratic candidate Pamela Stevenson, a state representative from Louisville.

"I support Russell," wrote Callaway, who sponsored a bill this year to allow women who have an illegal abortion to be prosecuted for criminal homicide. "I heard a quote and commented. I didn't mention him at all, but I'm sure he can take the pushback. He's going to make a great AG."

Fred Summe, the president of Northern Kentucky Right to Life, told The Courier Journal neither attorney general candidate answered its questionnaire, so neither would receive an endorsement — though Coleman would receive its "recommendation" based on a letter he sent it saying he'll defend anti-abortion laws in the courts.

Stevenson's campaign did not respond to a request for comment on this story, but she has stated in the past she will "support a women's right to choose and make the health care choices that are best for her and her family" and has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood. Stevenson has also said she "will not prosecute doctors or patients" and "will not follow in my predecessor’s footsteps of seeking to violate the privacy each Kentuckian deserves."

Cameron says Beshear is the extremist on abortion policy

Besides slamming Beshear's abortion ads as "disgusting, false attacks" — saying he would sign a bill with rape and incest exceptions if the legislature passes one — Cameron has said that it is actually Beshear who is the out-of-step extremist when it comes to abortion policy in Kentucky.

In his interview with WKYT last week, Cameron said Beshear "believes that there should be no limits on abortion," adding Beshear's office did not defend a 20-week ban on abortion when he was attorney general and that as governor, Beshear vetoed a bill to ban abortion at 15 weeks of pregnancy.

Cameron also said Beshear "refused to sign" a bill in 2021 requiring a baby to receive medical care if it "survives an abortion, is born alive" — which still became law without his signature. Beshear also vetoed a similar bill the previous year, writing that "current law already protects any child born alive."

"That is extreme, and I know the majority of Kentuckians do not agree with a governor that functions more like (California Gov.) Gavin Newsom than a red state governor should," Cameron said.

Beshear has consistently said that he supports the right to an abortion up until the moment of viability for the fetus, saying the overturned Roe v. Wade decision "got it basically right" and he supports "the reasonable restrictions that it set forth." Besides criticizing the current ban for having no rape and incest exceptions, he has criticized it for not including exceptions for women with nonviable pregnancies whose child has no chance of survival.

A spokesman for Beshear's campaign did not respond to an emailed question asking which week of pregnancy should be the limit under Kentucky law for a woman to have an abortion.

While Republicans in Kentucky are usually on offense when it comes to the issue of abortion during election season in the socially conservative red state, this year has seen a clear flipping of the script, with Beshear taking the issue to Cameron in aggressive ads over the past month.

After Roe v. Wade was overturned in June 2022 and Kentucky's trigger bans on abortion went into effect, voters then went to the polls and rejected a proposed constitutional amendment to declare there is no right to an abortion in Kentucky — with opponents' campaign ads heavily emphasizing it did not include any exceptions for rape and incest.

Reach reporter Joe Sonka at and follow him on Twitter at @joesonka.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Abortion laws in Kentucky: Are Cameron, Coleman shifting on exceptions?