Kansas referendum will test change in abortion landscape since Roe fell

In the first of a wave of referendums across the country on abortion rights, Kansas voters will decide on Tuesday whether the state’s constitution protects the right to terminate a pregnancy.

Should Kansans pass the ballot measure, it would give state lawmakers leeway to ban the procedure, which they appear likely to do.

Abortion remains legal in Kansas for now, with abortion providers saying they have been overwhelmed by demand from patients in neighbouring Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas – all of which have banned abortion and are now wrestling with the consequences.

“There has been a great deal of shock at the local level from people who, I think, just didn’t believe Roe would fall or that we could end up in this situation,” said Emily Wales, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which operates in all four states.

“Kansas is essential for the provision of abortion services here locally, and it is not hard for people to look across state lines” to see the consequences of bans, she said.

The ballot measure in this state will provide an early indication of how the supreme court’s decision in June to end a national right to abortion has altered the American political landscape. California and Vermont are expected to vote on whether to affirm a right to abortion, while campaigners in Michigan are working to get a similar measure on the ballot. Kentucky and Montana will have anti-abortion ballot measures.

While supporters of abortion access said there has been a “groundswell” of support since the supreme court’s decision, winning the vote in Kansas will not be easy.

The new constitutional amendment, if approved, would override a 2019 Kansas supreme court ruling that people in the state have the right to terminate a pregnancy. But the measure appears on Kansas’s primary ballot, typically reserved only for registered party voters, where they select the nominee for their party in the later November election.

Republican voters are far more likely to participate in August primaries in Kansas than Democrats are. Unaffiliated voters make up more than one-quarter of the state’s electorate, but typically have no reason to come to the polls during primaries.

A canvasser for Students for Life in a suburb of Kansas City.
A canvasser for Students for Life in a suburb of Kansas City. Photograph: Gabriella Borter/Reuters

“The only outcome that would shock me is if the no side [fighting to keep abortion legal] won easily or comfortably,” said Patrick Miller, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

“I would not be surprised by a yes vote win because they’ve been better organized.”

Before the fall of Roe v Wade, abortions in Kansas represented less than 1% of all abortions performed in the country, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights research organization. About 560,000 women of reproductive age live in Kansas.

Anne Melia, an activist who supports abortion rights, went door-to-door to talk to voters in Merriam, Kansas.
Anne Melia, an activist who supports abortion rights, went door-to-door to talk to voters in Merriam, Kansas. Photograph: John Hanna/AP

A ban in Kansas could ripple across the midwest. The region is now one of the most hostile to abortion in the US, and many states have already banned it or intend to.

Planned Parenthood Great Plains has been forced to tell patients that although clinics in Kansas might be nearest, they are unlikely to be able to accommodate them.

“You’ve got to get to Nebraska, Illinois if you can – New Mexico and Colorado,” Wales said she tells patients. “If you’re coming from Texas, we may be the closest geographically, but we just don’t have enough appointments to meet the need.”

Republican lawmakers in Kansas have refused to specify how they would restrict abortion, but have signaled interest in outright abortion bans, and groups backing the amendment have told supporters their goal is an abortion ban.

Ads in favor of the amendments, however, tend to focus on “reasonable” limits on abortion – even though many are already in effect, such as a ban on taxpayer funding for abortion.

Neither Kansans for Life, a sponsor of the constitutional amendment, nor state representative Trevor Jacobs, a prominent proponent of abortion ban legislation, responded to multiple requests for comment.

Public polling suggests the campaign will be close. As of July, 47% of voters said they supported the measure, 43% said they opposed it, and 10% were undecided. Polls from February show 60% of Kansans oppose an outright ban on abortion. But Kansas’s legislature is “much more conservative than the average Kansan on abortion”, said Miller.

It’s a dynamic that has played out across many US states, as well as in the US Senate. As the Republican party has grown closer to the anti-abortion movement, and lawmakers adopt more extreme positions, Republican-dominated legislatures have banned abortion even when public sentiment is mixed.

An estimated 85% of Americans support legal abortion in at least some circumstances, according to Gallup polling. Nevertheless, more than half of US states are expected to try to ban abortion, and the procedure is already banned, unavailable or legally contested in 17 states.

Kansas also has its own history with abortion, one that touches on the most violent extremes of the anti-abortion movement. Thousands of anti-abortion protesters descended on the state in 1991 for the “Summer of Mercy”, blockading clinic entrances and harassing patients and doctors. Then, in 2009, a man assassinated George Tiller, a doctor who provided surgical abortions, outside his church in Wichita, Kansas.

“We have a chance, a good chance – again, complicated by being on the primary ballot,” said Ashley All, a spokesperson for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, a coalition of groups that oppose the proposed constitutional amendment.

“But, if people are motivated and they understand this is something that takes away their constitutional rights, takes away their freedom to make decisions for themselves and their families – I think they’ll show up and vote no.”

The Guardian