By Mitch Smith, The New York Times Company
OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Kansas voters will decide next week whether to remove protections of abortion rights from their state constitution, providing the first electoral test of Americans’ attitudes on the issue since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
The election could give the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature authority to pass new abortion limits or to outlaw the procedure entirely, potentially reshaping the map of abortion access in the nation’s center. The vote, which has been planned since last year but took on far higher stakes after the federal right to abortion was eliminated, is expected to send a message far beyond Kansas as politicians nationwide weigh new abortion measures and watch for signs of how the public is reacting.
“Kansas is the bull’s-eye of the United States in terms of its geography, but it’s also the bull’s-eye where all the energy that has emerged from the Supreme Court decision has now focused,” said Pastor Randy Frazee, who leads a large church in suburban Kansas City, Kansas, and who like many clergy members supports giving legislators the power to restrict abortions.
Money, advertising and attention have flooded into the campaign since the ruling last month, returning Kansas to the forefront of the nation’s abortion debate, a place it has occupied frequently and sometimes violently over many decades. Combined, the two sides have spent more than $11 million on the election this year.
“I’ve never been so enraged for so long,” said Courtney Schmitz, who volunteered for the first time in her life to work at a campaign phone bank after the Supreme Court ruling. Schmitz, who works in early-childhood education and lives in suburban Kansas City, said she felt “a sense of duty” to make sure women from states where abortion was now banned could continue to get abortions in Kansas.
Kansas is a conservative state where registered Republicans far outnumber Democrats. But what limited public polling has been conducted on abortion suggests a relatively tight race leading up to the Aug. 2 vote on whether to amend the state constitution to say there is no guaranteed right to abortion. The outcome will hinge on which side can persuade voters to turn out for a summertime election featuring a ballot question with language that critics say can be hard to understand.
If the amendment passes, allowing Kansas lawmakers to further limit abortions, it could signal a broader openness in conservative states to sweeping new limits in a post-Roe world. If the amendment fails, Kansas would remain a state where abortion rights are protected, and leaders contemplating abortion restrictions in other states could see the result as a political warning sign.
At the moment, Kansas finds itself as an unlikely outpost of abortion access on the Great Plains, with the procedure permitted at up to 22 weeks of pregnancy and the number of abortions being performed in the state trending upward. Two bordering states have now banned the procedure in nearly all cases, and even before Roe fell, nearly half the women who got abortions in Kansas lived elsewhere.
The fast-approaching vote is rooted in a 2019 ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court that struck down some abortion restrictions and found that the right to an abortion was guaranteed by the state constitution. That decision infuriated Republicans, who had spent years passing abortion restrictions and campaigning on the issue. They soon used their supermajorities in the Legislature to place the issue on this year’s primary election ballot.
But what had been shaping up as a state-level fight over abortion limits took on far greater meaning after the nation’s top court opened the door for states to outlaw the procedure entirely. Supporters of abortion rights widely assume that Kansas lawmakers would pass a near or total ban within a few months, and they are making that belief central to their pitch to voters.
“It’s going to be an intense, slippery slope,” said Joel Gallegos, an abortion rights advocate from Lawrence, Kansas, a liberal-leaning college town where an array of colorful “Vote No” signs, including some invoking former Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, are staked into yards. “People are going to be prosecuted for felonies for quote-unquote murdering their baby and things like that.”
Supporters of the amendment have noted repeatedly that the ballot item itself would not ban abortion, and Republican lawmakers have been careful to avoid telegraphing their exact legislative plans. But Republicans in the state have long pushed for stricter abortion laws. If the amendment passes, the question is not whether they would try to enact new restrictions, but how far those bills would go.
Efforts to pass new limits would be made more difficult by the state’s Democratic governor, Laura Kelly, who supports abortion rights. But if Republican lawmakers are united in their approach, which is not guaranteed, they could override Kelly’s vetoes with their current margins in the statehouse. They could also wait until November to see whether the governor prevails in a challenging reelection race.
The vote has taken on added significance because of Kansas’ location in the nation’s middle, where a dwindling number of states permit abortion.
Neighboring Missouri and Oklahoma have now banned abortion in nearly all cases, Nebraska could further restrict abortion in the coming months, and women from Arkansas and Texas, where new bans are in place, are traveling well beyond their states’ borders. The number of abortions performed in Kansas has increased in recent years, to more than 7,800 in 2021 compared with about 6,900 two years earlier. Nearly half the women who got abortions in Kansas last year were from Missouri.
“We don’t want to be an abortion destination,” said Susan Humphries, a state representative from Wichita, who along with other Kansas Republicans pushed to take the issue to a statewide vote.
Kansas has roots as a center of the anti-abortion movement, dating back to 1991, when protesters from across the country gathered in Wichita and blocked access to clinics during weeks of heated demonstrations that they called the Summer of Mercy.
At times, the state has seen violence over the issue. In 1986, a Wichita abortion clinic was attacked with a pipe bomb. In 1993, a woman who opposed abortion shot and injured Dr. George Tiller, one of only a few U.S. physicians who performed late-term abortions. In 2009, another anti-abortion activist shot and killed Tiller at his Wichita church.
In presidential elections, Kansas is reliably Republican, and Republicans have dominated the Legislature for decades. Still, Kansas politics can be complex, especially in state-level races, where ticket-splitting is common and political moderation is sometimes rewarded. Republicans and Democrats have traded back the governorship for decades, and a majority of Kansas Supreme Court justices were appointed by Democratic governors.
It is also a state where coalitions are shifting, mirroring national trends. Republicans have run up huge margins in rural areas in recent elections, but the state’s most populous county, Johnson County, which includes several affluent Kansas City suburbs, has been trending rapidly toward the Democrats. Johnson County voters favored President Joe Biden by 8 percentage points in 2020, eight years after voting for the Republican Mitt Romney by an 18-point margin.
On both sides of the abortion debate, leaders have indicated that they expect the race to be close. A statewide survey this month of more than 1,500 likely voters by co/efficient, a Missouri-based firm, found supporters of the amendment leading 47% to 43% with a margin of error of about 2.8%.
A poll conducted last year by Fort Hays State University showed nuanced views on abortion, although it did not ask specifically about the amendment. About 31% of Kansans surveyed said they believed abortion was murder, and about 20% said they wanted abortion to be illegal in cases of rape and incest. About 63% of people polled said they believed women were better positioned than politicians to make decisions about abortion, and 51% said the state government should not place any restrictions on when women can get abortions.
But it remains anyone’s guess how those numbers will translate in this election.
In Kansas, registered Republicans, who account for 852,000 of the state’s voters compared with 496,000 Democrats, are accustomed to competitive primaries and are used to voting in August, while Democratic contests are often dull or uncontested in much of the state. Unaffiliated Kansas voters, who outnumber Democrats, are not accustomed to voting at all in primaries but will be able to vote on this amendment if either side can turn them out.
Supporters of abortion limits have leaned heavily on churches to mobilize voters, including well before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Because the election is about an issue, not a candidate, religious organizations have been free to campaign openly without risking their tax-exempt status. The Catholic Church, in particular, has taken a public role in supporting the amendment, which is officially known as the Value Them Both amendment.
But the decision on Roe seemed to jump-start efforts to defeat it.
Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, which has been leading the push against the amendment, reported $6.54 million in contributions and $5.8 million in spending since the beginning of the year. The group has received large contributions from national groups, including the Sixteen Thirty Fund, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Value Them Both Association, which is leading the campaign to approve the amendment, reported raising $4.69 million in 2022, including $2.45 million from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese in Kansas City, Kansas, $550,000 from the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, and smaller amounts from other churches and religious groups. The group reported spending $5.4 million.
A number of other organizations on each side of the issue have separately campaigned and raised money on the amendment.
After the Supreme Court decision, a lot more people suddenly became aware of the amendment, said Melinda Lavon, a midwife who has been helping organize a vote-no campaign, including text-messaging blitzes and events in rural areas. “People had a lot of emotions about it, and they put it to good use.”
John Markert, who supports the amendment, said that he was pleased with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling but was not sure it would help his side in the vote. Along the route where he bicycles several times a week in Lenexa, another Kansas City suburb, more yard signs have been popping up on each side of the issue.
“It threw everything to the forefront,” said Markert, who was retired from the mortgage business and who said his opposition to abortion in almost all cases was informed by his Christian faith. “If Roe versus Wade would not have been overturned, I think the ‘Vote Yes’ would have been” more likely to prevail. He added: “I don’t know if it is now.”
As Election Day approaches, rhetoric has grown heated. Campaign signs on both sides have been stolen or destroyed, police and organizers say. In the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, vandals targeted a Catholic church this month, splattering buildings and a statue of Mary with red paint, an episode police linked to the abortion debate.
Twice in recent weeks, someone tore down signs supporting the amendment at Faith Baptist Church in Salina, Kansas, said a pastor, Jesse Rowland. A third sign has been placed in the churchyard.
“It’s kind of more trench warfare — everybody is dug in on one side or the other,” Rowland said. “Nobody’s talking, really, from what I’ve observed.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.