OLATHE, Kan. – Republicans have spent more than three decades making it as hard as possible to get an abortion in Kansas, and now that their chance to ban the procedure is in sight, they’re reluctant to tell voters whether that's their goal.
In the first statewide abortion referendum since the U.S. Supreme Court overruled Roe vs. Wade, Kansas voters will decide Aug. 2 on a proposed change to the state constitution that would clear the way for its Republican-controlled Legislature to more strictly regulate or ban abortion. Several other states are poised to vote on the issue later this year, and new fights loom where courts and governors are less conservative than legislatures.
But even as conservative lawmakers in nearby states such as Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas take pride in their near-total bans, abortion opponents in Kansas avoid giving direct answers about what new restrictions they'd support, and some deny they'd seek a total ban.
“You don’t want to get out over your skis and and, you know, say something and then it doesn’t even come to pass,” said Kansas House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican who opposes abortion and is poised to become House speaker next year.
It's part of a strategy to get conservative voters out to back the amendment while appealing to centrist voters who support restrictions but don't want a ban.
Both sides accuse the other of misleading voters.
“They intend to ban abortion in all cases,” said Anne Melia, 59, a former Republican who is now a Democrat and an environmental chemist who gave up a consulting job last year to focus on political activism. “Our law here could match something like what happened in Missouri with their trigger law that’s banned all abortion.”
If abortion opponents are successful, Kansas will be the fifth state to add language to its state constitution declaring that it doesn't grant the right to abortion. The other four — Tennessee in 2014, Alabama and West Virginia in 2018, and Louisiana in 2020 — ban most abortions.
Kentucky will vote in November on having its constitution declare that it doesn't protect abortion rights, and Republicans in Iowa and Pennsylvania are pursuing such initiatives. Meanwhile, Vermont will decide in November whether to add an abortion rights provision to its constitution, while abortion rights supporters in Colorado are aiming for a 2024 initiative.
In Michigan, a ballot initiative likely is headed for a November vote on whether to enshrine abortion rights language in the state constitution. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also is asking the state’s highest court to strike down a 1931 abortion ban that has been dormant for five decades. Courts in at least 10 states are dealing with lawsuits over abortion.
“This is, I think, a really unsettling and troubling moment for American women and providers who treat American women,” Whitmer said.
In Kansas, spending in the campaign over its abortion question has topped $14 million, with backers spending about $8 million. Catholic dioceses and the Kansas Catholic Conference have contributed more than $4 million to the vote yes campaign. Abortion providers have contributed nearly $1.5 million to the vote no campaign, and the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a liberal Washington group, has kicked in $1.4 million.
Kansas currently bans most abortions at the 22nd week of pregnancy, imposes a 24-hour waiting period for patients and mandates parental notification for minors, among other things.
Kansans for Life, the state's most influential anti-abortion group, has for decades pushed the most restrictive abortion laws that would pass court muster or, when Democrats held the governor’s office, win the legislative supermajorities necessary to override vetoes.
Then in 2019 a law banning the most common second-trimester procedure was blocked by the Kansas Supreme Court, which ruled that the state's constitution protects abortion rights. A law setting additional health regulations also is on hold, with a trial judge ruling in December that the state had no justification for rules applying only to abortion providers.
If voters say yes Aug. 2, those laws could take effect quickly. But lawmakers also would have the power to enact a law like the model proposed by the National Right to Life Committee that would ban all abortions except to save a woman's life.
“Kansas and Michigan will both serve as test cases on the power of Republican state legislatures to intervene in personal medical decisions,” said Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts. “And other states will be paying attention.”
Abortion opponents say talk of a ban is misleading. The real issue, they say, is that without a constitutional change, the laws currently being enforced might be erased, making Kansas a haven for unrestricted abortion.
“All eyes are here,” said Ella Witt, who directs student canvassers for the national Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America group, whose website says its mission is to end abortion. “It’ll tell an important story of where maybe things are headed.”
The group brought in about 300 college students from 25 out-of-state campuses to knock on doors and talk to voters, investing $1.3 million.
One voter was Toni Sluga, a 74-year-old retired teacher who said the state’s highest court “usurped the power of the Legislature.”
“We just don’t want Kansas to become the abortion capital of the country,” she said.
Some scholars see that argument as dubious. Jeffrey Jackson, interim dean of the Washburn University law school in Topeka, and Stephen McAllister, a former Kansas solicitor general who represented the state in the case that led to the 2019 ruling, said some restrictions, such as the waiting period and parental notification, are likely to survive even if the amendment does not pass.
Abortion has been a defining political issue in Kansas since the anti-abortion “Summer of Mercy” protests outside the Wichita clinic of Dr. George Tiller in 1991. Tiller was among the few U.S. physicians known to do abortions late in pregnancies. An anti-abortion extremist murdered him in 2009.
The protests energized abortion opponents, who began a long-term strategy of electing people who would vote with abortion in mind at every level of government. But even though Kansans have sent abortion-opposing majorities to the Statehouse, they regularly elect Democrats who support abortion rights as governor, like Laura Kelly in 2018.
Abortion opponents say how far they could go next year if the amendment passes depends on whether Kelly wins her tough reelection race. She has said adding anti-abortion language to the Kansas Constitution would “throw the state back into the Dark Ages.”
The presumed GOP nominee, state Attorney General Derek Schmidt, supports the ballot measure but will not say what he’d sign as governor. Top Republican lawmakers also are mum. An aide to Senate President Ty Masterson, a Wichita Republican, texted that Masterson “sees no value in prognosticating.”
The vote in Kansas is on primary election day, which is expected to favor abortion opponents. Over the past 10 years, GOP voters have cast twice as many ballots as Democrats in Kansas primaries. But more than 12,000 people registered to vote in Kansas between April 1 and July 1, with a draft of the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion leaking in early May.
Troy Newman, president of the national anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, said once the amendment passes, the immediate priority will be to enforce the Kansas laws now on hold.
"Then we tighten up various restrictions, maybe abolish abortion altogether,” he added. “I think it’s not a bridge too far.”
Associated Press/Report for America writer Joey Cappelletti contributed from Lansing, Michigan.
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