WICHITA, Kan., July 19 (Reuters) – A fight over abortion access in Middle America is roiling the hills and plains of Kansas, where voters will decide whether the state’s constitution should go on protecting the right to terminate a pregnancy.
The Aug. 2 vote is the first statewide electoral test of abortion rights since June 24 when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.
The divisive issue has animated political campaigns nationally ahead of a congressional election on Nov. 8.
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Interested groups on both sides have contributed big money. Both have been knocking on doors in Wichita and in the Kansas suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri, in a race to win over voters with moderate views on abortion.
Kansas Republicans had been pushing for a state constitutional amendment to scrap abortion rights since 2019, when the Kansas Supreme Court ruled the constitution protected the right to abortion.
Kansas allows abortion up to 22 weeks in pregnancy with several additional restrictions, including a mandatory 24-hour waiting period and mandatory parental consent for minors.
It has more lenient abortion policies than some neighboring red states, although it is a deeply conservative state that Republican Donald Trump won with 56% of the vote in 2016 and 2020.
The proposition would amend the Kansas bill of rights to say there is no state constitutional right to abortion, and enable the Republican-led legislature to regulate it much further.
That could roll back abortion access across the U.S. heartland. Patients travel to Kansas from Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri, which all effectively banned the procedure after Roe was overturned.
Other states, including Kentucky, Vermont, California and likely Michigan, will ask voters to weigh in on abortion rights in ballot initiatives this year.
YOUNG VOTERS COUNT
Wichita State University political science professor Neal Allen expects the amendment to pass, but the 29% of registered voters unaffiliated with a political party, including many young people, could prove critical to opponents’ chances.
“I think this amendment will win or lose based upon the level of turnout of younger Kansans who don’t necessarily like the Democratic Party but want to defend abortion rights,” Allen said.
A statewide survey released in February by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University found that 50.5% of residents agreed “the Kansas government should not place any regulations on the circumstances under which women can get abortions.”
Sixty percent disagreed that abortion should be completely illegal.
Supporters of the amendment call it the “Value Them Both” amendment. The proposal states, “Kansans value both women and children.”
Gabby Lara, a canvasser with the Value Them Both campaign, was careful to tell voters in a Kansas City suburb that the amendment was not the same as a total abortion ban.
A recent college graduate, Lara had a fresh forearm tattoo of a rose and “2022” in Roman numerals to commemorate the fall of Roe v. Wade.
The campaign’s message about “common sense limits” resonated with Amanda Hopson, a 37-year-old mother of two boys.
Citing her Catholic values, Hopson said she had refused to terminate her first pregnancy after she got in a car accident and her water broke at 13 weeks. Her son, born at 26 weeks, is almost 3 and breathes through a tracheostomy tube.
“It’s not a choice I would make,” she said of abortion while voicing some openness to rare exceptions in cases of rape and incest. “I do understand that there are certain circumstances where things are necessary.”
‘NO TO MORE GOVERNMENT CONTROL’
Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, the main coalition opposing the amendment, has sought to appeal to some conservative voters’ preference for smaller government, emphasizing that a vote “yes” would strip voters of a right and give more power to lawmakers to regulate abortion.
“Kansans don’t want another government mandate. Say no to more government control,” one of the coalition’s ads says.
The Catholic Church – including the diocese of Wichita and the archdioceses of Kansas City and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma – was the top supporter of the Value Them Both campaign in 2021, contributing approximately $760,000, according to the most recent campaign finance reports filed in February.
The ACLU and Planned Parenthood, including the local affiliates and national organizations, were the biggest contributors to Kansans For Constitutional Freedom, giving $235,000 and $110,000, respectively.
Should the amendment pass, abortion rights would likely figure prominently in the state’s legislative and gubernatorial elections in November.
Governor Laura Kelly, a member of President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party who is considered vulnerable as she seeks re-election, opposes the amendment.
“She’ll continue to oppose all regressive legislation that interferes with individual freedoms or threatens the strides we’ve made in recent years,” a spokesperson for Kelly said in a statement.
Kelly’s likely Republican opponent, State Attorney General Derek Schmidt, has praised the amendment and said he will vote for it.
As they canvassed a Wichita neighborhood on a sweltering summer day, amendment opponents Katie Grover, 44, and her daughter Lillian, 12, urged voters to consider the ramifications of stripping abortion rights from the state constitution.
“A ‘yes’ vote means we put all the power in the legislature,” said Grover, who wore a T-shirt that said “Mother by choice, for choice.”
Angelica Aryee, a 37-year-old pregnant mother of two, said she believes abortion is immoral. But an independent, Aryee said having one daughter and another on the way made her second-guess whether she wants lawmakers to be able to prevent her children from getting abortions.
After talking to Grover, Aryee said she would vote “no” on the amendment.
“I’m afraid the more power we give them, the more they’re going to take from us,” Aryee said.
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Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Howard Goller
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