Kansas voters will decide whether to protect abortion rights in the state constitution, after the Legislature on Thursday approved placing the question on the 2022 primary ballot.
The upcoming 18-month fight over an amendment, which says the constitution doesn’t guarantee the right to an abortion, is all-but-certain to prove costly and inflame a state with a long history of division and even violence over the issue.
The Senate voted 28 to 11 to put the amendment on the August 2022 ballot, achieving the two-thirds majority needed to advance the proposal to voters. The House approved the amendment last week on the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion nationwide.
If voters approve the amendment, Kansas will join at least four other states with constitutions that explicitly exclude the right to an abortion. The Kansas Legislature is also the first to advance an amendment since Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the high court last fall, cementing its conservative majority.
The amendment lays the legal groundwork for severe restrictions or a future ban on the procedure if the federal right to an abortion is ever abolished.
But in the short term, the amendment — branded Value Them Both by supporters — would effectively overturn a 2019 Kansas Supreme Court decision that found that a constitutional rightto ”personal autonomy” includes the right to an abortion. Both abortion rights supporters and opponents believe the ruling will make curbing the procedure — or upholding current regulations — more difficult if allowed to stand.
“All those things that are very strongly supported by Kansans, folks realize they’re in jeopardy,” said Jeanne Gawdun, director of government relations for Kansans for Life, the state’s most influential anti-abortion group. “They support Value Them Both and that’s why they sent legislators here to get it passed.”
On Twitter Gov. Laura Kelly posted the statement she released after the House vote last week claiming her belief that a woman’s reproductive decisions should be left to her, her family and her doctor. She also warned of economic consequences.
“I don’t think those supporting this amendment are aware of the consequences it will have for the state of Kansas and our reputation,” she said.
Senators clashed over the impact of the amendment In an emotional two-hour debate.
Opponents said the bill could lead to increasingly restrictive abortion laws that could hurt women and discourage people from living in the state.
Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Democrat, accused her colleagues of prioritizing special interest groups over the will of Kansans and misrepresenting the possibility of future restrictions on abortion by insisting that the amendment wouldn’t ban abortion.
“When, not if, this promise is broken we will all have blood on our hands because bans on abortions lead to unsafe, unregulated procedures,” Sykes said.
Proponents argued that the Supreme Court had acted in a “rogue” manner in 2019 by taking the regulation of abortion out of the hands of the legislators. The amendment, they said, would return the decision to voters.
“Kansans don’t want an industry that’s not been trusted in the past to be unregulated,” said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, said. She warned that Kansas could become a “destination” for late-term abortions if existing regulations, such as parental consent, are struck down by the court.
Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization that supports abortion rights, said the constitutional amendment dismantles one of the two barriers to upholding abortion restrictions: the state court.
As the U.S. Supreme Court becomes more conservative, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas are following Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana and West Virginia in efforts to change state protections.
Kansas has a long, turbulent history of abortion politics from 1991’s Summer of Mercy — 46-day protest blocking access to Wichita abortion clinics — to the 2009 assassination of Dr. George Tiller, one of the targets of the protest.
A 2014 Pew Research Survey showed the state evenly split on abortion with 49% of Kansans believing the procedure should be legal in most or all cases and 49% who would like to see it illegal in most or all cases. The organization hasn’t surveyed the state since.
“Kansas has been for decades, right, a place where abortion policies and abortion access is a hot button issue,” Nash said. “And yes, I think for people who have lived in Kansas for decades, they have a sense of that history.”
Ingrid Duran, National Right to Life state legislative director, compared Kansas to Tennessee, calling it a generally anti-abortion state that would support a legislative check on abortion practices.
“I have a feeling that Kansas is poised to pass this,” Duran said, noting that if federal protections to abortion are overturned and policies are left to states it would be “helpful” for Kansas to have the ability to regulate abortion.
Constitutional amendments, however, are historically not easy to achieve. Local organizations have formed coalitions and are poised to launch campaigns that could cost millions of dollars. Both sides say they will focus on educating voters and sharing the stories of women impacted by Kansas’s existing laws.
Though they had hoped to avoid it, Rachel Sweet, director of public policy and organizing at Planned Parenthood Great Plains, said abortion rights activists have planned for this campaign since the 2019 state Supreme Court ruling.
“We knew as soon as the Hodes decision came that there would be attempts from the anti-abortion movement to overturn it so we’ve been laying the groundwork for this for a while,” Sweet said, referring to the name of the case.
Part of the strategy will involve drawing new voters to the polls. The campaign will be led by the local chapters of Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, Trust Women and Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity, Sweet said.
Brittany Jones, Director of Advocacy for the Family Policy Alliance of Kansas, said she is confident in the coalition’s ability to get strong anti-abortion voters out to the polls. The challenge will be in swaying Kansans who are more ambivalent.
“We start from the concept that the majority of Kansans are pro-life and they want to protect babies but they also want to ensure that moms have appropriate protections,” Jones said.
This article appeared in the Wichita Eagle, here.
Paid for by The Senate Democrats Committee, Cory Sheedy, Treasurer.