‘Everybody’s daughter’: The rape victim behind Kentucky’s viral abortion ad

MIDWAY, Ky. - One month before the governor thanked her for his victory, Hadley Duvall had already won.

Standing in the middle of a football field in mid-October, she looked out at the students of her small Christian university, stunned to be the one wearing the rhinestone tiara. Her classmates could have chosen to honor the student body president or a leading member of the local Bible study. Instead, they’d picked Hadley, the face of a viral ad about abortion and sexual abuse that had begun airing a month earlier, and would soon help Democrats hold the governor’s mansion in one of the most conservative states in the country.

“They don’t hate me,” Duvall, 21, recalled thinking as she accepted a bouquet of red roses from her college president. “They made me homecoming queen.”

By the night of the football game at Midway University, pretty much everyone sitting on the bleachers knew the secret Duvall had kept for 10 years: She’d been raped throughout childhood by her stepfather, who pleaded guilty to rape, sodomy and sexual abuse, and is now serving 20 years in prison. He started sexually abusing her when she was 5 years old, according to police reports - at first convincing her that his behavior was normal, then holding her down when she finally realized it was not.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s reelection campaign learned about Duvall because of a Facebook post about her experience she had written on June 25, 2022, the day after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The ruling triggered a near-total abortion ban in Kentucky, one of 12 states with a recently enacted ban that makes no exceptions for rape or incest. Days after she heard from Beshear’s team, Duvall was sitting in the dining room of a wealthy Beshear supporter she didn’t know, staring into a video camera. She aimed her words directly at the Republican candidate for governor, who for months had thrown his full support behind the current version of Kentucky’s law before conceding late in the campaign that he was open to additional exceptions.

“This is to you, Daniel Cameron,” Duvall said in the ad, her blue eyes narrowed in anger.

“To tell a 12-year-old girl she must have the baby of her stepfather who raped her is unthinkable. I’m speaking out because women and girls need to have options. Daniel Cameron would give us none.”


Cameron and his campaign did not respond to requests for comment, though he reacted to the ad at the time. “My heart goes out to her, and I want her to know that,” Cameron said.

Since Roe fell, voters have overwhelmingly backed abortion rights in each of the seven states where the issue has appeared directly on the ballot, including in conservative Kentucky, Kansas and, most recently, Ohio.

Democrats have had relatively less success translating voters’ frustrations over abortion bans into races that could oust the politicians responsible for them, or prevent the election of other antiabortion leaders. In Texas, Georgia and Florida, for example, governors who signed abortion bans were reelected by wide margins in 2022, suggesting that voters aren’t necessarily tying antiabortion policies to individual candidates, or aren’t prioritizing the issue when deciding which candidate to support.

Duvall made that connection abundantly clear for Kentucky voters last month. Her ad, viewed online over 3 million times, sparked concerned discussions within the Republican Party, with top national leaders acknowledging the critical role Duvall played in Beshear’s reelection.

“Go look at the ad ran against Daniel Cameron in Kentucky of the young woman who was raped when she was 12 years old by her father,” Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, said on a recent podcast. The ad clearly contributed to Beshear’s win, McDaniel said, “because we won everything else down ticket in Kentucky.”

Heading into the 2024 presidential election, the resonance of Duvall’s ad offers a new playbook for Democrats, while positioning Duvall herself as a uniquely powerful messenger on abortion, capable of appealing to moderates and conservatives.

“Some people have a stereotype of someone who has to make this kind of choice,” said Duvall’s mother, Jennifer Adkins Miller. “But Hadley is in everybody’s household. She’s everybody’s daughter. She’s everybody’s niece. She’s everybody’s sister.”

Duvall has thought critically about why she, in particular, has been such a persuasive voice on the issue. She expects conservatives wouldn’t have been nearly as open to listening to a Black or Hispanic woman with the same story.

“It’s a sad reality,” she said. “White privilege . . . I believe that’s a thing, 100 percent.”

She said she’s been called “the all-American girl.”

A senior in college, still working through years of trauma, Duvall knows she could lose her appeal in an instant. As she rushes to class or sits in the stands at a basketball game, she can feel her classmates watching her, she said.

“I have to remember my name kind of means something now,” Duvall said. “There are people who are probably just waiting for the chance to shoot me down.”

Duvall was in the second grade when she first suspected something wasn’t right.

A guidance counselor visited her class to teach her and the other 8-year-olds about the parts of their bodies no one else was allowed to touch, she said. Thirteen years later, Duvall still remembers every word of the song she learned that day.

Stop! Don’t touch me there. This is my no-no square.

Her stepfather, Jeremy Whitledge, had been touching her in those places for years — first with anal penetration, then later vaginal and oral, according to police reports. But when Duvall asked him about the song that night, she said, he offered an explanation that made sense.

“Those rules are for strangers,” Duvall remembers him saying. “Not for your family.”


While Duvall’s 30-second ad includes only a vague reference to her childhood, Duvall discussed her experience in far more detail in interviews with The Washington Post, describing unrelenting sexual abuse she endured over the course of a decade.

Whitledge declined to comment for the story, according to Lisa Lamb, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Corrections.

In September 2019, Whitledge sent a letter to Miller acknowledging the abuse, writing, “Because of my weakness I failed as her father. I failed as her protector.”

At the beginning, Duvall said, Whitledge framed the sexual abuse as a punishment. When she and her brother did something wrong, she recalled, he would send them to their rooms to await whatever discipline he deemed appropriate.

“My brother would get spankings,” Duvall said. “I would get touched.”

Most of the abuse happened at night, after her mom went to sleep. He would sneak into her bedroom around midnight or 1 a.m., she said, locking the door behind him. She would try to go somewhere else in her mind — sometimes clutching an old T-shirt of her mother’s until it was over.

Duvall said she thought all the time about telling her mom, but she didn’t want to mess up what she imagined other people saw as “the perfect family.” She had parents who came to her cheerleading competitions. Christmases at her stepfather’s family cabin. A jet ski on the lake.

Her mom had struggled with drugs for years, Miller and Duvall said, but eventually became sober after a year in rehab.


“I knew there was no way my mom could do it all on her own,” Duvall said.

Duvall had only had her period a few times when she realized that she hadn’t had one in a while. When she told her stepfather, she said, he instructed her to fake being sick on a school day so she could take a pregnancy test at home.

As the 12-year-old waited for her result, the test facedown on her bathroom sink, Whitledge walked her through what he claimed were her choices, she said. She could “sneak in” a boy from the neighborhood and pretend the baby was his, she recalled him saying — or they could take a drive to a clinic in Louisville.

“I didn’t even know what abortion was,” Duvall said.

The pregnancy test was positive, Duvall said, but she never had to make a choice. Almost two weeks later, she said, she woke up to sharp cramps and far more blood in her underwear than she’d ever seen before. For hours, she said, she sat on the toilet while a steady stream of blood flowed into the bowl.

At the time, she just assumed her period had returned.

It would be years before she understood she’d had a miscarriage, Duvall said.

At the end of eighth grade, in May 2016, she filled out a questionnaire about her hopes and fears for high school, which she keeps in her apartment. Asked about the “biggest mistake you HOPE you DON’T make,” Duvall responded, “Get pregnant.”

Duvall decided to tell her mom about the abuse less than a year after she answered that question, texting her from school in April 2017 to say she had something important to share that night. Miller prodded her daughter for more details — “Are you in trouble? Are the police involved?” — then picked Duvall up early, too unsettled to wait for the end of the day.

Duvall broke the news in the car, both women recalled.

“Jeremy sexually abuses me,” Duvall said to her mom.

Miller slammed on the brakes and later threw up.


Over the next 24 hours, Miller said, she cleared out the bank accounts and the gun cabinet, while Duvall stayed with a friend. Soon after that, they went to the police.

That day, Duvall said she decided not to tell anyone about the pregnancy. Police records show that Duvall recounted a pregnancy scare she had at age 12, but that the test had been negative. Looking back, Duvall said she didn’t have the strength to tell a room full of male officers what had really happened.

“I wanted people to know I went through that, but I didn’t want them to know I miscarried,” Duvall said. “I wasn’t ready.”

But as the years passed, Duvall said, she started regretting that she hadn’t recounted her full story in the police station, feeling heavy with secrets she’d planned to keep forever. She told her cousin about the positive pregnancy test in late 2021, when she was 19.

“It was really hard for her (when she reported to the police), everybody bombarding her with questions,” said Chloe Adkins, Duvall’s cousin.

Telling the truth about the pregnancy was “healing in a sense,” Duvall said.


A big secret, she realized, made it harder to move on.

The day after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Duvall opened the Notes app on her phone and started to write.

She’d scrolled through over a dozen Facebook posts from friends and family celebrating the decision, growing angrier with each new Bible verse in her feed. A Christian herself, Duvall struggled to understand why they wanted to take rights away from young women and girls in vulnerable situations. If they knew the full extent of what she’d been through, she wondered, would any of them see this differently?

“The father figure in my life had planted his child in me at the age of 12,” she wrote in her draft. “Thankfully, I had my CHOICE. I never had to go through with my decision, but I would have . . . if you can look at a CHILD & tell them you think they should have to carry their parents child, you are sick.”

With the post still safely tucked away in Notes, Duvall thought about all the people in her life it might upset. Her boyfriend’s conservative family, whom she was eager to impress. Her mom, who still didn’t know about the pregnancy. Most of all, she said, she worried about her half sister, whom her mom put up for adoption when she got pregnant unexpectedly at 21. More than two decades later, her sister — who made contact with the family when Duvall was 13 — would sometimes post antiabortion messages online.

“What if she hates me?” Duvall remembered thinking. “What if she thinks I hate her?”

Duvall wasn’t as pro-abortion rights as some of the people she saw marching through the streets, she said. She couldn’t say when in pregnancy she thought abortion should be banned — but she thought there should be some kind of limit. More than anything, she said, she wanted people to see the issue for all its gray areas and complications.

“I’m not pro-abortion,” she’d sometimes say. “I’m pro minding your own business.”

As soon as Duvall copied the draft from Notes and clicked “post” on Facebook, she said, she set her phone facedown on the other side of the room, too scared to look.

By the time Beshear’s campaign team started planning for an abortion ad focused on exceptions for rape and incest, about a year later, Duvall’s post had been shared over 3,000 times. Hundreds of commenters had called her brave. Strong. An inspiration. A few people said she’d persuaded them to change their views.

Duvall drove to the video shoot with her boyfriend one morning in mid-July, five potential outfits in the back of her car. She wasn’t getting paid for the commercial, but she’d agreed to participate as soon as the campaign asked, thinking of all the other abuse victims she’d be able to reach with her message.

On set, Beshear’s media team selected a simple navy dress, then asked for permission to airbrush the tattoo on her arm of angel wings, a tribute to Duvall’s late nephew.

David Eichenbaum, Beshear’s Washington-based media consultant, handed Duvall a script based on fragments of things she’d said, tailored to appeal to the Republicans the governor couldn’t win without. Duvall would never say the word “abortion.” Instead, she would stress the importance of “options.”

“It’s an inclusive word,” Eichenbaum said. “We’re trying to persuade people here.”

After Duvall read through the script for the first time, Eichenbaum said, the room went silent. He and the cameraman were crying. So was Duvall’s mom.

Miller said she’d heard her daughter talk like that once before — five years ago in a Kentucky courtroom, reading her victim impact statement before the sentencing as she stared down her stepfather.

Duvall didn’t let herself cry until she was lying in bed that night, hours after the filming was over. Then the feelings surfaced all at once, messy and conflicting. She felt proud of what she’d done that day, she said, but also sad.

“This is what I’m going to be known for: being raped,” she said to her boyfriend. “And that’s just that.”

When the ad posted online in late September, Duvall stared at her computer for the better part of three days, refreshing every few minutes as the likes and retweets climbed higher and higher. She read every individual post she could find, she said, fixating on any negative comment.

Worried about her daughter, Miller eventually called Duvall’s boyfriend.

“Take her out,” she told him. “She needs to have fun. She needs to be a college student.”

But when they arrived at their favorite dive bar, Duvall’s ad was playing on the big screen.

“What is even happening right now?” she recalled saying to her boyfriend, as the people around them started to stare.

Two months later — the election long over — the staring hasn’t stopped. If anything, Duvall said, it has intensified. Now, she’s not just the girl in the ad. She’s the girl who helped the governor win reelection.

In his acceptance speech, Beshear thanked Duvall right after his wife and kids.

“Because of her courage, this commonwealth is going to be a better place and people are going to reach out for the help they need,” he said. “Thank you, Hadley.”

Duvall has thought a lot about why her ad resonated so deeply, especially with moderates and conservatives in her Republican state. While a lot of people don’t particularly like the idea of abortion, she said, they might think differently about the issue when they’re introduced to a real person with a story like hers.

“It’s real easy to dismiss the rape and incest exceptions when they’re not right in front of your face,” Duvall said.

Ahead of the election, she decided to keep a few of her Facebook posts public — so voters could see her hugging her mom, walking her dog, wearing her homecoming sash. If her face was persuasive to people, she decided she might as well use it.

From the beginning, the Beshear campaign had warned Duvall to brace for backlash to the commercial. But sitting in the Midway student center a week after the election, Duvall told her friends she hasn’t had to deal with much.

“It’s been nothing bad,” said Duvall, lying back in a chair, pink sneakers slung over the armrest.

Duvall had just arrived back on campus with her arm in a cast after having surgery for an old athletic injury.

“I don’t even know how you hate on it, not going to lie,” one of Duvall’s friends said. “There’s not really a way to hate on it.”

“Especially when you are the male species,” Duvall said. “Like, what are you talking about? Nobody even asked you.”

“And was never, ever going to,” said Kyaria Cotton, Duvall’s best friend and former roommate.

They all laughed.

These were the moments that made Duvall feel like she could keep speaking out forever. She could become a victim advocate, fighting for other little girls abused in their bedrooms late at night. She could campaign for Democratic candidates in 2024 - and show voters across the country how abortion bans can harm young women like her.

Then a guy on the basketball team walked by.

“Hey, superstar,” he said. “Can I get your autograph?”

Duvall rolled her eyes and smiled, like she does every time this happens. But her mind was already off somewhere else, spinning up anxious thoughts. Did people think she was doing all this to get rich and famous? People were always observing her now, her face familiar across Kentucky. What if she did something embarrassing at a bar one night, she wondered, and someone caught it on video?

With a few hours to kill, Duvall and Cotton decided to walk to the local coffee shop. They bounded across the soccer field, yanking off their sweatshirts to soak in the warmth of one of the year’s last summerlike days. They talked about Duvall’s boyfriend and the day of homecoming — how Cotton knew all along that her best friend would win.

In line for coffee — a mile from campus — Duvall could have been any 21-year-old, debating which fall drink to try that day.

Then the barista recognized her.

“Which drink was hers?” the barista asked Cotton once Duvall stepped away. “I’ll cover it.”

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Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.