Kansas legislators set to re-initiate battle over anti-abortion constitutional amendment

The ‘We Value Them Both’ amendment fell four votes short in the state House in 2020

Senate President Ty Masterson is prepared to lead efforts to pass again the anti-abortion constitutional amendment. The measure passed through the Senate 28-12 in 2020. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Proponents of an anti-abortion amendment to the Kansas Constitution are prepared to resume efforts to pass the legislation after suffering a setback during the 2020 legislative session.

The “We Value Them Both” amendment — a reference to women and fetuses — fell four votes short of the two-thirds majority needed in the House after passing the Senate. When the session was cut short by COVID-19, efforts to pass the amendment in 2020 faded.

The amendment would clarify, in response to a 2019 ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court, that the state constitution doesn’t guarantee a right to an abortion. The court determined the Kansas Constitution’s Bill of Rights “affords protection of the right of personal autonomy, which includes the ability to control one’s own body.” This right, the court said, “allows a woman to make her own decisions regarding her body, health, family formation, and family life — decisions that can include whether to continue a pregnancy.” The ruling struck down a state law banning a second-trimester procedure.

Republicans who voted against the constitutional amendment last year were either defeated during the Republican primaries or chose not to pursue re-election, clearing the way for passage of the amendment this year.

If approved by two-thirds of both chambers, the amendment would be placed before Kansas voters on a ballot for a special election.

The Kansas Catholic Conference is putting all its legislative effort into passing the amendment, said Jeanette Pryor, policy specialist for the organization. She said all abortion regulations are in peril without the amendment.

“The Kansas Supreme Court’s decision that the right to an abortion is in the constitution renders all pro-life legislation presumed unconstitutional,” Pryor said. “Feeling as we do about women and babies in Kansas and the need to offer them reasonable protection when they’re interacting with the abortion industry, we understood that an amendment was the only way to remedy this.”

With the 2021 legislative session set to get underway next week, eyes across Kansas are on the divisive issue of abortion and the constitutional amendment. While opponents have called the amendment “draconian” and “oppressive,” supporters say the amendment allows better regulation of abortion providers.

Mike Pirner, the communications coordinator for Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, said the issue remains near the top of the Kansas GOP wish list.

“The Value Them Both Amendment is a top priority for the Republican Caucus,” Pirner said. “We anticipate it being addressed early in the session.”

The expectation is the amendment will pass more smoothly through the Senate, where the measure succeeded 28-12 in 2020. Sen. Dan Kerschen, a Garden Plain Republican who has consistently voted in favor of anti-abortion initiatives, said he would support the amendment again.

“To me, it’s as simple as right and wrong,” Kerschen said. “All life is sacred, and we can’t take it away for our own selfish demands.”

Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat, said the amendment would make Kansas a more restrictive place to live.

“I’m always focused on what can we do to grow our state and make Kansas a home for everyone,” Haley said. “Having options and choices in reproductive health is a fundamental aspect for the decision of where we live.”

Prospects in the House are less certain, but after several moderate Republicans were replaced by staunch anti-abortion advocates, reaching the 84 votes necessary to place the amendment on the ballot may be an easier task than before. Republicans hold an 86-39 majority over Democrats in the chamber.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, was unsure of when the amendment may reach the House, but he expressed confidence the election results are a positive omen.

“Kansans spoke loud and clear in November by electing legislators who ran on this issue, so the momentum is there for the Value Them Both Amendment,” Ryckman said. “The timing for that really depends on the process. It will go through the committee process, and we’ll move forward from there.”

Democrats face a steeper uphill battle to sway Republicans in the House this session, but until the amendment is in front of legislators, the odds of doing so remain uncertain, said Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Democrat.

Clayton said she remains strongly opposed to the amendment.

“Above all, this constitutional amendment is not about abortion,” Clayton said. “It’s about who has rights, who doesn’t and who decides.”

If it does pass both chambers, the next step is determining when the amendment will be on the ballot. In 2020, Republican leadership insisted on placing the amendment on the ballot during the August primary rather than during the higher turnout general election in November.

“That was somewhat confusing to me because if it is good, then you should want more voters to see it,” Clayton said. “If you’ve got something to hide then you put in in a low turnout election.”

Rachel Sweet, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood Great Plains, said the organization will continue to fight vigorously against the amendment. She said the amendment would pave the way to a total ban on abortions in Kansas.

“Without these state constitution protections, there is a potential future where abortion is completely illegal in the state and certainly means more onerous restriction, especially for the most vulnerable people and those struggling to access health care,” Sweet said. “If we don’t defeat it in the Legislature this year, we will at the ballot box.”

This story has been updated to reflect that some Republicans who voted against the amendment resigned rather than being defeated in the Republican Primary.