TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) - Kansas voters are casting ballots to decide whether the state constitution should contain a right to abortion. A ruling from the Kansas Supreme Court in 2019 said it does. Now, voters will weigh in. As Dylan Lysen of the Kansas News Service reports, the result of the August 2nd vote could open the door for lawmakers to place more restrictions on abortion access.
TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansans have been arguing with each other about abortion for at least a generation.
But the stakes have never been this high.
The U.S. Supreme Court says states are free to outlaw abortion. The Kansas Supreme Court says, sure, but only if you first change the state constitution.
And the Legislature, dominated by anti-abortion conservatives, put an amendment to the Kansas Constitution up for a statewide vote on August 2.
That’s drawn millions in campaign spending to the state and fired up forces on both sides.
“You should have the freedom to decide whatever you want for yourself,” said Shauna Williams, a Topeka resident who recently protested outside the Statehouse to oppose the constitutional amendment.
She and other protesters contend passage would mean the state’s lawmakers could dictate what a woman does with her body when she’s pregnant. Supporters of the change see it as a way to regulate abortion in line with how Kansans feel about abortion.
Kansas will be the first state in the country to vote on abortion rights since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a decades-old precedent that provided the right to an abortion nationally.
Many states saw abortion restrictions go into effect immediately after the ruling. But the right to an abortion continued in Kansas because of a landmark 2019 Kansas Supreme Court decision.
So the stakes were raised for the vote in Kansas, turning a philosophical question to change the state constitution into a decision that will have real-world consequences.
Political signs for the state constitutional amendment vote on abortion rights in Kansas sit near each other in yards in Overland Park. That supercharged the state’s political fight. Protests against the amendment have taken to the streets, while rallies in support are taking place in church sanctuaries. It’s also spurred millions of dollars of campaign funding to flood into the state from across the country.
Supporters say the amendment does not ban abortion. They argue it would correct what they see as the state court’s overreach by striking down some of the state’s previous abortion restrictions. For example, a law struck down in December that mandated specific health inspections for abortion providers could kick in if voters tweak the state constitution next week.
During a rally at Central Christian Church in Wichita, Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, and his wife, Mercedes, argued the vote simply puts abortion policymaking back in the hands of lawmakers.
“At the end of the day, the vast majority of Kansans — They are with us,” Mercedes Schlapp said. “They understand the importance of this amendment to protect the woman and protect our unborn babies.”
Alesha Doan, an abortion policy expert at the University of Kansas, said work by abortion opponents over the last 30 years has had one goal in mind — a full-blown abortion ban in Kansas.
As the state hurtles toward the vote, the campaign arguments have been contentious, and the vote appears to be close. Protests have popped up across the state, even in some of the most conservative communities in the western part of the state — Hays, Dodge City, Garden City.
Shannon Hall, one of dozens of protesters in Hays, grew emotional when defending the right to an abortion.
“Abortion is health care,” Hall said. “I do not want to go back to the times when I was a child and people (were) getting illegal abortions and ended up dying from them.”
The Value Them Both coalition, the main campaign supporting the amendment, argues the amendment is needed to restore limits on abortion that were struck down by the court.
Without that and other limits, the coalition says Kansas is an abortion destination for women from other states. The organization also argues rejecting the amendment means there will be no limits on abortion in Kansas.
“At this historically important time, the question before Kansans on August 2nd is clear: An unregulated abortion industry with no limits at all or the reasonable limits protected by the Value Them Both Amendment,” said Mackenzie Haddix, a spokesperson for the coalition.
While the state has seen an influx of abortion patients from other parts of the country over the last year, the coalition wrongly asserts there are no limits on abortion in Kansas. In fact, abortions after 22 weeks of pregnancy continue to be outlawed, among other restrictions.
Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, the main opposition to the amendment, argues that the coalition is trying to present an extreme decision to remove people’s rights as a politically moderate choice. Ashley All, a spokesperson for the group, says the Republican lawmakers want to ban abortion completely. She says that’s not what Kansans really want.“There are a lot of people in the middle who may support some restrictions, but they also recognize that there are times and places when abortion is necessary,” All said.
Polling in the state appears to confirm that. According to a 2021 Kansas Speaks survey by Fort Hays State University, most Kansans support at least some access to abortion services.
Additionally, a poll conducted by the firm co/efficient and published by FiveThirtyEight shows only 5% of those surveyed want a complete ban on abortion, while 43% believe there should be no government restrictions. Despite that, the survey showed 47% of respondents planned to support the amendment, while 43% said they would vote against it.
Money pouring in
Millions of dollars have been contributed to the two campaigns. They reported a combined $11.2 million of contributions for 2022 in their campaign finance reports filed just weeks before the election.
Value Them Both got most of its funding from Catholic churches and organizations, while Kansans for Constitutional Freedom collected large donations from Planned Parenthood and others.
Those funds don’t include money national organizations are spending on their own. Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a national abortion opposition group, injected $1.3 million into Kansas in support of the amendment.
The large sums are virtually unheard of for a Kansas constitutional ballot measure. Bob Beatty, a political scientist for Washburn University, said the federal decision to overturn Roe v. Wade spurred the significant boost of funding because Kansas will be the first state to vote on abortion rights since the federal ruling.
Those large sums of money are mostly going toward TV advertising for the campaigns. All told, nearly $10 million has been spent on those ads, making it one of the most expensive primary elections in state history, according to the Sunflower State Journal.
Mum's the word
If the amendment is approved, the Republican-dominated Kansas Legislature would then have the authority to pass as many restrictions as they want. But current lawmakers aren’t giving many hints as to what they want to do if the amendment is approved.
While many have said they want to reinstate restrictions that were previously thrown out by the courts, they are much quieter on whether they do or don’t want to pursue a total ban.
Republican State Sen. Mark Steffen appears to be the only one willing to say out loud that he wants legislation to recognize “life starting at conception,” according to the Kansas Reflector.
The coalition has also been mum on the topic. When Steve Kraske of KCUR’s “Up To Date” pressed Underwood on the issue, she would not say what she or the coalition wanted to come next.
“It doesn’t really matter what my opinion is,” Underwood said. “It matters what the opinion of the people of Kansas is.”
Beatty said those kinds of responses are calculated to present the amendment as a moderate, common-sense change.
Some Kansans want much more restrictive laws on abortion, but tailoring messaging to those voters wouldn’t do much good for the coalition, Beatty said. Instead, the group is trying to win over voters in the middle.
“Any other year or time, some legislators would be out campaigning, ‘Dang right we’re going to ban abortion if we can,’” Beatty said. “But given the amendment, some are staying silent on the issue.”
Is a total ban politically possible?
At least one bill banning abortion has already been introduced in the Kansas Legislature. Lawmakers did not act on the bill before adjourning for the rest of 2022.
But whether a total ban is inevitable or politically impractical may depend on the general election in the fall.
Democratic Governor Laura Kelly is up for reelection. She is expected to face Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt. Kelly supports abortion rights and could veto a ban.
Abortion in Kansas would then turn on whether conservatives could rally enough lawmakers to override her.
Every seat of the Kansas House is also up for election. Conservatives could keep or even gain more seats there and the power to override a governor's veto.
But Doan says the proposed amendment came after Kansas abortion opponents started to wield their influence to push out moderate Republican lawmakers for more conservatives likely to back an abortion ban — a long-sought goal of the right wing of the party.
“That’s what this amendment is designed to do,” Doan said. “And for a politician to not answer that is also disingenuous.”
Early voting on the amendment has already begun and Aug. 2 is election day. All Kansas voters may cast a ballot on the issue, regardless of their political affiliation.
Dylan Lysen reports on politics for the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @DylanLysen. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio - focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.