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To Keep Abortion Restrictions, Kansas Conservatives Push Constitutional Amendment

A roadside sign in rual Kansas opposing abortion. (Photo by Chris Neal)

Kansas lawmakers spent years imposing ever tougher restrictions on abortion and then saw the state Supreme Court declare that women hold a right to the procedure.

Now Republicans and abortion opponents appear determined to amend the Kansas Constitution to reverse that ruling.

They’re looking to protect years of wins on the contentious issue, efforts that peaked during the term of Republican then-Gov. Sam Brownback. Those anti-abortion victories included blocking most abortions after the 21st week of pregnancy and requiring parental consent for minors to get an abortion.

Groups such as the influential Kansans for Life warn that the high court’s ruling earlier this year puts those laws in danger.

“They’re in jeopardy,” said Jeanne Gawdun, a senior lobbyist for Kansans for Life. “The Legislature’s been able to enact over 25 different pro-life provisions, because it’s the will of the people.”

That risk is a rallying cry for conservative lawmakers. On Wednesday, a special committee made up of members from the Kansas House and Senate recommended an amendment to the state constitution. They want to specify in the document that there is no right to abortion.

Changing the Kansas Constitution is no easy task. Both the Kansas House and Senate would have to approve an amendment with a two-thirds majority. Then the issue would go on a ballot for a statewide vote.

“All Kansans should be concerned about this matter,” Republican Senator Eric Rucker said after the committee vote. “(They) have a right to vote on whether or not to uphold this most unusual decision by the Supreme Court.”

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of the Kansas Legislature. The GOP has 84 of the 125 seats in the House, the exact number of votes needed to approve a constitutional amendment. In the Senate, 27 of 40 senators must approve a constitutional amendment and Republicans hold 29 seats.

In both chambers, a few moderate-leaning Republicans will be critical swing votes. Lawmakers narrowly failed to override Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of an abortion bill last session. An override requires the same two-thirds majority as a constitutional amendment.

As some Republicans rally behind the threat of undoing abortion restrictions, Democrats are preparing to push back.

“It completely opposes our platform,” Kansas Democratic Party Chair Vicki Hiatt said. “We strongly believe in a woman’s right to choose.”

The lawsuit that triggered the Kansas Supreme Court’s landmark decision this year is still pending. The high court clarified that the state constitution promises abortion rights and sent the case back to a lower court.

Because of that uncertainty, Democratic Rep. Pam Curtis said it’s unclear that existing abortion restrictions will be wiped out. She served on the committee that recommended a constitutional change and voted against the proposal.

“We really don’t know that yet,” she said. “We’re already jumping to a conclusion.”

Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda or email skoranda (at) ku (dot) edu.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

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