Kansas’ abortion vote kicks off new post-Roe era

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“This is the first of many battles that we’re going to be seeing across many states,” said Mary Owens, the communications director for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, who flew in from the organization’s Virginia headquarters for the final push. “The power has gone back to the people to be able to enact pro-life legislation through their elected representatives rather than judges.”

Kansas is a conservative state that former President Donald Trump handily won twice, but the question of abortion-rights is proving to be divisive and unpredictable.

On Friday, a small group of college students and recent graduates volunteering with the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America trooped up and down the streets of suburban Kansas City, where houses are more likely to display sports banners than political ones. They were stopped by a woman, who leaned out her car window to thank them and say she had already voted.

“I just believe in life, and an unborn child is a life,” Edianna Yantis said, her voice catching and her eyes welling. “To me, it’s murder to kill it.”

Others on the same block were also moved to tears — for different reasons.

“I’ve been doing this for 25 years now and I see so many kids go into foster care. I see so many kids born into drug-addicted families. I see people who just can’t take care of their kids and it just wears on you,” said Heather, a nurse practitioner who declined to give her last name out of fear of reprisals at work, her voice shaking with emotion. “I mean, I’ve had 13-year-olds delivering a baby — they’re just kids. We see kids who are raped and sexually trafficked.”

“That,” she added, pointing to the anti-abortion canvassers and her neighbors’ “Vote Yes” signs, “is not the answer.”

The canvassers quickly thanked her and backed away. With just three days to go, they were focused on turnout, not persuasion.

The “Value Them Both” amendment on Tuesday’s ballot doesn’t ban abortion, but it clears a path for the Legislature to do so. Abortion is currently legal in the state up to 22 weeks, though there are several restrictions on clinics and patients — particularly minors seeking the procedure. But the state supreme court ruled in 2019 that the state constitution’s language about bodily autonomy extends to abortion rights, meaning Kansas can’t join the red states surrounding it that have near-total bans on the procedure unless anti-abortion forces win at the ballot box.

Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America is spending $1.3 million to air ads, send mailers, fly in and house about 300 volunteers who have knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors since May. Altogether, according to campaign finance disclosures, anti-abortion-rights groups have raised nearly $4.7 million, much of it from the Catholic Church.

Kansans for Constitutional Freedom — the umbrella group fighting against the amendment — has raised more than $6.5 million, with the bulk coming from Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights groups.

“I could not imagine prosecuting a rape victim or asking that victim to carry their attacker’s child,” Chris Mann, the Democrat running for Kansas attorney general, told POLITICO on Monday. “I couldn’t imagine asking an abuse victim to carry that abuser’s child. But those are truly the unfathomable things that very well could happen if this amendment passes.”

Kansas is one of the only states in the region where abortion remains legal and has become a destination for patients from states that have implemented near-total bans, particularly Texas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

Kansas providers told POLITICO the influx of out-of-state patients has increased wait times by multiple weeks, and that it’s been difficult to recruit more doctors to meet the demand given the state’s history of violence against abortion providers. Doctors in the state fear that losing access to the procedure in Kansas as well would force those patients to travel even farther, putting abortion out of reach for those who can’t afford to do so.

“I’ve already been seeing patients from out of state almost every day. People are driving through the night. People are traveling so far to get basic health care,” said Iman Alsaden, the chief medical director of Planned Parenthood Great Plains and an abortion provider in Kansas City. “And now the Kansans I take care of could lose a basic human right.”

While Kansas is a solidly red state, it also has a Democratic governor, and a recent poll by the research firm co/efficient showed 47 percent of respondents said they would vote for the amendment compared to 43 who said they would vote against it, with 10 percent undecided.

Yet, in a sign of the widespread uncertainty around what the amendment would do, a third of voters said they favor no restrictions on abortion while only 9 percent said they prefer a total ban.

Anti-abortion forces stand to benefit from the amendment being scheduled for the August primary rather than the general election in November. Turnout tends to be lower and favor registered Republicans, who far outnumber registered Democrats, and who have more competitive primaries in the state. Many college students, who tilt progressive, also aren’t around in the summer, and unaffiliated voters who normally can’t cast a primary ballot may not realize that they can vote on the referendum.

Despite those headwinds, abortion-rights groups feel emboldened by the response on the ground. The co/efficient poll found that significantly more Democrats than Republicans said they were motivated to vote because of the measure — 94 percent to 78 percent. And data from the secretary of state’s office shows early in-person voter turnout is nearly 250 percent higher than the last primary midterm election in 2018, while the number of mail-in ballots is more than double.

“The deck was stacked against us on purpose by the legislature,” said Emily Wales, the president of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which covers Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma. “But it backfired somewhat, because here we are weeks after the Roe decision and people have never been more engaged and I think we’re going to see record turnout.”

With the state so closely divided on the issue, campaigns on both sides are scrambling to reach as many voters as they can before Tuesday night.

On Saturday morning, dozens of volunteers with Kansans for Constitutional Freedom gathered in a community center in Kansas City’s Rosedale neighborhood to fuel up on vegan donuts and hear a pep talk from Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) before heading out to canvas.

The white-haired retirees, wearing fanny packs and reading glasses, sat on folding chairs among young couples holding hands and a few mother-daughter pairs and cheered as Davids — the state’s only Democratic member of Congress — argued that her upset victory against a GOP incumbent in 2018 shows that a win is possible for progressives on Tuesday.

“It’s why I feel so optimistic about our ability to beat this thing back,” she said. “A hundred years from now, people are going to look back at this time we’re in now, and I hope you all feel a little bit of relief knowing that when they look back, they’re going to see that you’re a group of people who not only saved our democracy, but helped make sure that our children and grandchildren had just as many rights as we have.”

Since the abortion-rights’ campaign launched earlier this year — well before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade — it has been focused on mobilizing less-engaged Democrats as well as independents, libertarians and moderate Republicans using messages honed in focus groups about stopping government interference in private medical choices. In the final weeks of the campaign, like their opponents, they shifted to turning out their base, making sure they know where and when to vote and why it matters.

Wales said the swift changes happening in the states surrounding Kansas since Roe’s fall have provided a clear illustration of their arguments.

“We’re right on the state line,” she said. “There’s no better window into what it looks like to have constitutional protections for abortion and what it looks like not to. On one side of the city, in Missouri, they’re debating whether emergency contraception is still legal and what their trigger law means and how to treat ectopic pregnancies — while on the other side of the city, people are more free and have more individual rights than their neighbors.”

Kansas’ fight also highlights another defining feature of post-Roe America: mass confusion.

The text of the proposed amendment itself mentions cases of rape and incest but includes no protections for abortion in those circumstances. Anti-abortion groups are running ads saying it would “end the gruesome practice of late term abortion,” though third-trimester abortions have been banned in the state for years. Billboards for the anti-abortion amendment posted along the freeway in Kansas City use the phrase “Trust Women” — the name of a network of abortion clinics and the motto of a Kansas abortion provider who was murdered in 2009. Meanwhile, in a bid to appeal to conservatives and libertarians, abortion-rights groups’ ads cast the amendment as a coercive “mandate” akin to mask and vaccine requirements. The local ACLU chapter said it’s been flooded with messages from voters unclear on what the measure would do.

Anti-abortion advocates, meanwhile, have been hesitant to discuss their next moves if the amendment passes — even after audio leaked of a leader of the pro-amendment campaign telling a local Republican group that the ultimate goal is a total ban on abortion starting from conception.

“If the constitutional amendment passes, then we can have the policy debate,” Owens said. “Kansans are going to have to decide through their elected officials what that looks like. That could look like a 15-week ban. That could look like a heartbeat ban. Every state is different.”

While abortion rights groups are warning that Kansas will become more like Missouri if the amendment passes, the anti-abortion groups are warning the state will become more like California if it fails.

Many restrictions are still in place in the state even after the court ruled in 2019 that the constitution protects abortion rights — from a 24-hour waiting period and mandatory ultrasound to a parental consent requirement, a ban on non-physicians performing abortions, a ban on telemedicine for abortion pills, and a ban on the procedure after 22 weeks.

Yet those stumping for the amendment are telling voters that those laws could disappear if they don’t vote yes.

“All of Kansas’ existing legislation is vulnerable to being struck down,” said Elizabeth Kirk, a law professor and Kansas native who works with the anti-abortion Charlotte Lozier Institute. “So what this amendment does is just restore the ability of Kansans to legislate whatever policy they think is best for the people in Kansas.”

Progressives, meanwhile, are rushing to remind voters that Republicans hold a supermajority in the state Legislature and this past session introduced a total abortion ban with no exemptions for rape or incest — making the potential outcome of Tuesday’s vote clear.

“If anyone thinks that won’t be the result in early 2023, they are foolish and need to stop deluding themselves,” Alsaden said.




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Alice Miranda Ollstein

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