Kansas Abortion Vote Signals Strategy for Future Battles

s the heat index topped 100 degrees in Johnson County on Saturday, dozens of canvassers fanned out over affluent suburbs to knock on strangers’ doors and talk about an emotional, fraught, and, in many cases, very personal issue: the Kansas constitution.

The state’s voters are being asked to amend its constitution to explicitly say that it does not contain a right to abortion. The ballot measure, which was first proposed in 2020, is intended to undo a 2019 Kansas Supreme Court ruling that found that right was implicitly part of the state’s governing document.

This will be the first ballot in which the question of abortion is on the agenda since the U.S. Supreme Court revoked federal constitutional rights to abortion. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. A new front in the battle for access to abortion is the battle for state constitutions. Rachel Sussman, the vice president of state policy and advocacy at Planned Parenthood, tells TIME that for the foreseeable future, access to abortion is going to play out “singularly” at the state level. “That is going to be amending state constitutions, pushing state statutory protections for abortion, and going to the ballot and bringing some of these issues directly to the public,” she says.

Students for Life of America volunteers canvassing Olathe in July 23rd.

Arin Yoon, TIME

While canvassers with Students for Life of America—an anti-abortion group coordinating with the Value Them Both coalition supporting the amendment—were encouraging residents to vote for the ballot measure on Saturday, abortion rights canvassers with Kansans for Constitutional Freedom were urging its rejection. Both sides expect the Kansas race to be close: a statewide poll conducted by co/efficient this month found that 43% of Kansans said they plan to vote “no” while 47% said they plan to vote “yes.” Millions of dollars have poured into the race, with national abortion rights groups backing the “no” side and Catholic dioceses and churches funding efforts to vote “yes.”

While campaigns were in the works before, Roe v. WadeTIME has learned that advocates from both parties have felt more pressure to succeed since the decision. On Saturday, 72-year-old Carolyn Sullivan told a canvasser she was voting “no” because she remembered a time before Roe It was feared that he would return to it. “I’m Catholic. I’m not sure I could ever have an abortion myself. But that’s not the issue,” she said. “The government should not be telling me what I’m doing with my medical needs.”

That same afternoon, Joe Mayer, 78, told canvassers that his Catholic faith compelled him to vote “yes.” “Our church recommends we do that,” he said. “It is the right thing to do.”

Jae Gray from Kansans for Constitutional Freedom conducts a session on canvassing in Overland Park Kansas, July 23rd 2022.

Arin Yoon, TIME

Its location means that Kansasans would be affected more than Kansans if they lose abortion access. With RoeNear-total abortion bans were lifted in Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas. This means that more people are driving long distances to get to the few Kansas abortion clinics. TIME interviewed five women seeking abortion at Planned Parenthood’s Overland Park on July 22. They said that they drove from other states in order to get the procedure.

Cynthia (31 years old), withheld her name due to privacy concerns. She said that she drove five hours from Tulsa Okla. for an abortion. She was a mother to two children, her first being at 18 years old. The Kansas ballot initiative was something she had never heard of and it alarmed her to learn its possible ramifications.

“Right now,” she said, “Kansas has been the hope for people like me.”

In the Olathe yard is a sign that says “Value Them All”.

Arin Yoon, TIME

Midwest Ramifications

Kansas, which is conservative in nature, has a high number of registered Republicans that outnumber Democrats. In presidential elections, Kansas voters are strongly favored by the GOP. However, the politics of Kansas are complex at the state level.

Recent decades have seen Democrats be just as likely than Republicans to win the governorship. In fact, the majority of state Supreme Court justices were elected by Democrats. The Republican state legislatures have enacted many restrictions regarding abortion over the past 20 years. These include a waiting period of 24 hours, parental consent from minors and strict limitations on the time when both private and public insurers can pay for the procedure. Partially, however, Kansas’ 2019 court ruling allows abortions for up to 22 weeks, which makes it an unusual outpost in the Midwest.

Kansans’ views on abortion are nuanced, too. Fort Hays State University conducted a survey in 2021 and found that 31% considered abortion to be murder. 40% also believed that the beginning of life was at conception. However, more than 60% disagree with Kansas making abortion illegal and 51% believe Kansas shouldn’t regulate women who want to have abortions.

Anne Melia (left) speaks to Dottie Jensen (87), while she canvasses for Kansans For Constitutional Freedom in Leawood. Jensen states that she will vote “no.”

Arin Yoon, TIME

Even before Roe People from all over the country were flocking to Kansas in order to have abortions. Kansas, which was the only state in the region that permitted clinics to be open while they were locked down after the COVID-19 epidemic in 2020. Texas then banned all abortions in the state after six weeks. Oklahoma passed a similar bill May 2022. By June 20, abortion had been removed from the Constitution. Ashley Brink is the director of Trust Women’s abortion clinic in Wichita. She says the Texas law has resulted in a doubled number of patients from out of state since September last year. In June, 172 of the clinic’s 272 patients seeking abortions were from out of state.

A 28-year old woman said that she drove from Tulsa to end her pregnancy at Overland Park clinic. According to her doctor, she was told by her doctor that she had to do it because her thyroid and stomach cancers were not being properly treated during pregnancy. In her home state, abortion is now banned except for instances rape, incest, and “medical emergency” in which abortion is necessary to save the pregnant person’s life. She told TIME that her condition did not allow her to access the procedure there, and she couldn’t get an appointment at the closer clinic in Wichita.

Republican state Rep. Susan Humphries, who supports the amendment, describes the state’s current role in the country’s abortion post-Roe landscape as “an anathema to the citizens of Kansas, that we would be a destination for abortion.” Jaylem Durosseau, a strategic partnerships advisor with Students for Life of America, says that the influx of out-of-state patients has raised the stakes for the ballot measure, and his canvassers are excited about the possibility of making an even larger impact on limiting abortions.

Kansans For Constitutional Freedom Canvassing Training Session in Overland Park, July 23, displaying ‘Vote No” pins

Arin Yoon, TIME

The epicenter for the fight

Kansas’ ballot measure voter is a vote that will disadvantage abortion rights supporters in many ways. The Aug. 2 vote coincides with the state’s Republican and Democratic primaries, where Republicans typically show up in larger numbers.

“Republicans start out as the heavy favorites in any election on the primary ballot,” says Neal Allen, a political science professor at Wichita State University. “A primary in the first weekend in August is the worst time to get strong voter turnout. You have many people who are on vacation, students are not in school … and Kansas, like many states, has made it more difficult to register voters.”

Kansas has had a half-time turnout at the primaries than general elections. Because they are more likely to be in contested races, there is a higher participation rate for Republicans in the primaries. Kansans need to register to vote in the partisan primary. The large number of nonaffiliated voters may not be familiar with the process and might not know that they are eligible to vote.. The state’s voters are 44% Republican, 26% Democratic and 29% unaffiliated.

Kansas has had abortion as a key issue for many years. Many Kansans have strong beliefs about the topic. Advocates are more interested in changing hearts and minds, rather than turning out the voters. KCF has raised $6.54million since the start of the year with the help of national groups such as Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. The Value Them Both Association, which has raised $4.69million, has mainly come from the Archdiocese of Kansas City and the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, and various religious organizations. The restoration of RoeBoth sides have been able to make a huge impact on their efforts. On June 24, 2016, the date of the ruling, voter registration soared by 1,000%.KCF claims they raised nearly $100,000 on that day, going from 50 volunteers per week to 500 the following week. Students for Life of America, however, says that their state volunteers have increased more than twice since May when Students for Life of America released a draft opinion.

On July 23, students for Life of America volunteer take a lunch break while canvassing Johnson County.

Arin Yoon, TIME

Like many other elections, it is possible that the race will be decided in the suburbs. Johnson County is the focus of both sides. This county, located just southwest Kansas City, has the highest population in Kansas. Joe Biden took Johnson County by eight points in 2020, while Donald Trump won the entire state by 14.

Both campaigns try to present the ballot measure to voters as an opportunity to determine the future state of abortion. The anti-abortion advocates in favor of the amendment say they merely want to reverse the state Supreme Court’s decision while abortion rights groups argue the amendment would open the door for state lawmakers to completely ban abortion. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says her data shows that independent and even some Republican women voters are motivated by the idea of lawmakers “going too far.”

While Republicans in Kansas have publicly refrained from sharing their plans if the amendment passes, the Kansas Reflector published leaked audio on July 15 of state sen. Mark Steffen, a Republican, who said that if the amendment passed, the state legislature would be able to pass new laws “with my goal of life starting at conception.” (The senator did not respond to a request for comment.)

Anne Melia talks to Naomi Marion about her 18th birthday while she canvassed for Kansans For Constitutional Freedom in Leawood, July 23.

Arin Yoon, TIME

Similar arguments are expected to be waged across the country. Without a federal right to abortion, the procedure’s legality rests on each state’s varied political landscape. Kansas, Montana and Florida are just a few examples of states where the state constitutions have been ruled to protect abortion right. Abortion rights advocates have taken up the cause to defend those rulings from pro-abortion activists who wish to amend or reverse them. In other states, including Michigan, Vermont, and California, abortion rights supporters have launched proactive campaigns to enshrine the right in the state’s constitution. Previous Roe was overturned, four states approved ballot measures like the one in Kansas and state courts had established state constitutional protections in a handful of other places, but in most states, there’s no definitive ruling on what the state constitution means for abortion, says Elisabeth Smith, director of state policy and advocacy at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Until there’s a determination from the state supreme court,” she says, “it is an open question.”

A preview of what’s to come

The new post-Roe landscape, advocates see the need for a “layered” fight, says J.J. Straight, deputy director of the ACLU’s liberty division, looking for ways to bolster abortion access through state houses, governors’ mansions, state constitutions, and state supreme courts.

Planned Parenthood Michigan and Governor. Gretchen Whitmer have each challenged the state’s 91-year-old abortion ban in court seeking to establish a state constitutional right to abortion. However, the Supreme Court overturned their decision. Roe, the campaign for a ballot measure to enshrine the right to abortion in the state’s constitution saw a massive surge in signatures. “These efforts are crucial to the fight for protecting access to abortion moving forward,” says Sussman of Planned Parenthood. “There needs to be more of them, and over time, a thoughtful and strategic nationwide effort to use state constitutions and ballot efforts to protect access.”

Student for Life of America volunteer wears a Miraculous Pendant pendant and a shirt that reads “The Prolife Generation Votes” during canvassing activities on July 23.

Arin Yoon, TIME

Some states such as Michigan and Kansas will be involved in these battles, which could also affect the elections to the state’s supreme courts. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the most costly cycle in recent history was 2019-2020. Conservative groups spend significantly more on state Supreme Court elections than have liberals. State supreme court elections also haven’t typically received as much attention as other statewide races, says Douglas Keith, counsel at the Brennan Center and co-author of the report. But the courts’ role in redistricting, voting rights, and now abortion, is changing that, with liberal groups looking to engage in court fights in North Carolina, Ohio, Montana, Michigan and Kansas. “What’s different now is that the U.S. Supreme Court is signaling a general withdrawal from the court’s role of protecting rights,” Keith says. “It’s clear that this is not just one issue that the state supreme courts are going to play a prominent role in. They may in fact become the primary venue for protecting individual rights.”

In Kansas, six of the state’s seven supreme court justices are up for retention elections in November, including three who were on the court for the 2019 abortion decision. Local groups representing both sides in the abortion debate have been focusing more on the ballot measure than on the races for the courts. Kansas has had a history of fierce battles for its Supreme Court justices. The Court, if it fails to amend the constitution, will still have an important role in deciding how abortion policy is implemented in the future. “I would be surprised if there was not a significant effort to unseat justices in this year’s retention election,” says Keith.

In Leawood, a sign stating “Value Her Choice” is placed in a window.

Arin Yoon, TIME

The future of abortion access in Kansas is still uncertain, and millions in other states are also in doubt. Brenna Keener (24 years old) drove from Blue Springs to Overland Park last week. She described a brutal year that involved four surgeries to treat her Crohn’s disease. After finding out that she was pregnant she believed her body couldn’t handle it and was incapable of caring for the baby herself. Kansas was her choice, as abortion is almost prohibited in her state. She’s closely watching the ballot measure race, apprehensive that it might pass.

“Where was I going to go? I didn’t have anyone … I can’t emotionally, physically, and financially take care of anyone but me right now,” she said. “I could not imagine this not being an option for women at all.”

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