Signs calling on voters to vote no or vote yes are displayed in Prairie Village, Kansas, on July 28, 2022. (Photo: CAITLIN WILSON/AFP via Getty Images)
WICHITA, Kansas—On the eve of the first state vote on abortion rights in the country since the fall of Roe v. Wade, the lawn signs in this quiet neighborhood of nearly identical, brick-and-beige homes hint at the strong feelings of people living inside.
“Vote No” signs suggests they will vote to preserve the Kansas state constitution, which currently protects abortion rights. A “Value Them Both” sign signals that they will vote to amend the constitution, handing Republicans in the state the power to ban abortion.
Then there are the homes with no signs, like the one abortion rights activist Karly Winegarner walked cautiously up to last week.
The woman who answered the door politely told Winegarner, 26, that she planned to vote “yes.” Then, a male voice started booming from inside about Democrats and the “foreign entities” funding the election: “There’s audio footage of Hunter Biden doing drugs and spending money on hookers!”
“Every single time I’m out here, you never know how people are gonna respond,” Winegarner said, after a hasty retreat.
Winegarner, who uses she/they pronouns, has reason to be concerned. During the 1991 “Summer of Mercy,” anti-abortion protesters descended on Wichita, forming physical blockades around its abortion clinics and leading to thousands of arrests. In 2009, an abortion opponent gunned down George Tiller, likely the most famous and controversial abortion abortion provider in the country, in his church. Now, the vote on Tuesday returns Kansas once again to the epicenter of the American battle over abortion.
The state’s violent history weighs heavily on locals, many of whom say that they’re now wary of speaking openly about their views on abortion. Some say they’ve been harassed for doing so.
Members of a thousands-strong Facebook group for Kansans who support abortion rights regularly discuss their fears about going public. One said their relative’s business had lost customers because they had posted a “Vote No” sign. Another asked for advice on how to avoid becoming a “target,” since they’re part of a same-sex couple. Still another said that someone had tucked a note into their car, warning them that they were on their way to hell; that same individual later posted about being called a “baby killer” by someone driving past.
“As much as I want to be gung ho, ‘let’s put the signs up, let’s put the signs up,’ I also have a 4-year-old daughter in my home that I have to be careful of and be mindful of her safety,” Ashley Michele Streid, a local stay-at-home mom, told VICE News. “I wrote ‘vote no’ in big, bold chalk letters at the end of my driveway, but honestly, that’s about as far as I’m willing to go with my home.”
“I wrote ‘vote no’ in big, bold chalk letters at the end of my driveway, but honestly, that’s about as far as I’m willing to go with my home.”
Laura Gardner Tong, who lives an hour outside of Wichita, said that her husband asked her not to put pro-abortion rights bumper stickers on her car. “I am small and mobility-challenged and an easy target,” she said.
Republicans have been trying to amend the Kansas state constitution since 2019, when the state supreme court first ruled that it protected abortion rights. But Roe’s overturn means that any future abortion ban would not be merely symbolic, and millions of dollars have flooded the race. The coalition Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, which is leading the charge against the amendment, has reported raising roughly $6.5 million in donations this year. The Value Them Both Association, on the other side of the debate, has reported receiving almost $4.7 million.
It looks like the vote will be close. In the first public poll of the race, conducted in mid-July, 43 percent of likely primary voters said they would vote against the amendment, compared to 47 percent who said they would vote yes, amending the constitution and paving the way for the state legislature, controlled by Republican supermajorities, to potentially further restrict abortion.
Over the course of two nights of canvassing, every person who answered the door said that they had heard of the amendment and already knew how they would be voting. (One woman approached by Winegarner kept her glass door closed until Winegarner revealed that she supported abortion rights. Then the woman walked out, in obvious relief, and grabbed several flyers.)
One yes vote will be Seth Weisner, a 22-year-old bartender who said he’s had three “Value Them Both” signs stolen off his lawn. His car is covered in purple “Value Them Both” bumper stickers.
“I’ve been very calm about saying that the ‘Vote No’ campaign has been misleading people, but it actually makes me really angry,” Weisner said, claiming abortion rights supporters are trying to falsely convince people that abortions in cases of rape or incest would become illegal.
“I’ve been out supporting ‘Value Them Both’ for at least six months,” he said. “Just at the end of June did I start seeing a lot of people have ‘Vote No’ signs, and that seems really pathetic.”
The Value Them Both Association has insisted its mission is to amend the state constitution so Kansas can have reasonable abortion restrictions, not to ban the procedure. But in comments captured on audio, a regional director for the coalition said that, if the constitution is changed, the movement planned to advance a bill that would outlaw abortion from the moment of fertilization. Under that bill, performing an abortion would be a felony equivalent to murder, and would only be permissible in cases of stillbirth, miscarriage, or ectopic pregnancies. (The association told a local news outlet the director was no longer with the coalition and didn’t represent its views.)
Weisner, who does not support abortions in cases of rape or incest, said that he would like to see abortion providers treated as if they’re hitmen and would likely support legislation to stop people from leaving their home states for abortions. He’s still making up his mind, though, on whether people who get abortions should face criminal consequences.
“Some people are in dizzyingly awful situations that, I’d say, alter culpability,” Wiesner said. “Some people are not in a difficult situation or they’re completely conscious of what they’re doing and doing it for selfish reasons—more selfish reasons than normal—so I would probably be harder on them.”
When Karly Winegarner talks to potential voters, she doesn’t talk about her own history much. But Winegarner has a 5-year-old child. When they found out they were pregnant, they said they went to a crisis pregnancy center, an anti-abortion facility that tries to convince people to keep their pregnancies.
“That could very well be the reason that she is alive,” Winegarner said of her child. “However, I still struggle paycheck-to-paycheck raising myself and my child as it is.”
When Winegarner got pregnant a second time, they decided, “I definitely cannot afford this, both mentally and financially.”
Winegarner got their abortion at Trust Women, a local Wichita abortion clinic. That clinic has its own legacy in Wichita: It operates in the building where Dr. George Tiller, the assassinated abortion provider, once worked.
“We could do abortions 24/7, seven days a week, and we still would not be able to see every single person who needs an abortion.”
One of the targets in the 1991 “Summer of Mercy,” the clinic has also been firebombed and flooded. In 1993, an abortion opponent shot Tiller in both arms outside the clinic.
Over the last several months, as first Texas and then Oklahoma enacted abortion bans in defiance of Roe, Trust Women has become a haven for abortion patients fleeing neighboring states with abortion bans—to the point that the clinic must sometimes turn away Kansas patients because they’re just too booked. In June, two-thirds of their patients were from out of state.
“We could do abortions 24/7, seven days a week, and we still would not be able to see every single person who needs an abortion,” said Ashley Brink, Trust Women’s medical director.
Brink, whose pronouns are she/they, isn’t shy about her support for abortion. On Thursday, they wore sparkly heart earrings that read, respectively, “miso” and “mife”—two drugs commonly used to induce a medication abortion. Brink has a coat hanger tattooed behind one ear, as well as a vibrant papaya forearm tattoo. (Thanks to papayas’ uterus-like shape, abortion rights activists will often use papayas to demonstrate how to perform a surgical abortion.)
But that openness, Brink said, has cost them. “Our protesters—they take pictures of us as we come and go. They videotape us. They take pictures of our license plates in the cars we drive and they try to look us up,” Brink said. “I’ve been doxxed. They’ve taken screenshots of my social media and posted it online.”
“Personally, I’m pro-life. I don’t believe in doing abortions. But I can’t make that choice for somebody else.”
The Trust Women clinic walls are adorned with motivational posters, reassuring people that “abortion is normal” and “it is never too late to become who you always wanted to be.” But it’s impossible to escape the fact that the abortion clinic is built like a bunker. There’s a security guard and a gate that keeps protesters out, while the clinic’s only windows—of which there are very few—are close enough to the ceiling to be above staffers heads. The plants are fake, because there’s not enough natural light to keep real plants alive.
As people drove out of the clinic’s parking lot last week, they were greeted by a van with a billboard of an enormous bloody fetus. A crisis pregnancy center sits right next door to the abortion clinic.
Regardless of the outcome of the vote on Tuesday, Brink anticipates that there will be more, and heightened, protests in the future. The clinic will be closed on Wednesday, following the vote, partly out of fear that anti-abortion protesters will decide to swarm.
“I’ve been on phone calls with FBI, with U.S. Marshalls, with Wichita Police Department. We’ve had lots of security trainings, drills, walkthroughs, discussions about how we can tighten security, increase security measures here to ensure that the staff and patients are safe,” Brink said. “It’s ridiculous that it’s even something that has to be talked about, felt by the staff here, because we’re regular-ass people going to our jobs, like everyone else.”
Tiller was killed in 2009, when a man walked into his church and shot him to death. Tiller’s wife was within earshot.
That church, a sprawling brick building dappled with white stone, is now an early voting site. On Thursday, the parking lot was packed with cars and people streamed in and out of the church. One woman, a local doctor, told VICE News that she had just voted against amending the state constitution.
“Personally, I’m pro-life. I don’t believe in doing abortions. But I can’t make that choice for somebody else,” she said.
The woman asked to remain anonymous because, she said, it’s tough to be openly supportive of abortion rights in Wichita. “Especially if you’re conservative in any other way,” she added. “At this point, I’m just not brave enough to do that.”
Winegarner, too, just can’t shake the fear of retaliation.
“If I tell somebody I’m a parent and I’ve had an abortion … somebody’s gonna start spitting fire,” Winegarner said. “I’m not a bad person for the choices that I made. I made choices that would better benefit me and my life going forward, and the life of my child going forward.”
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