Kansas House votes to put abortion amendment on statewide ballot

By: - January 22, 2021 11:37 am

Rep. Tory Arnberger-Blew, R-Great Bend, participates in a Jan. 12, 2021, news conference to announce the introduction of the proposed abortion amendment, which supports refer to as Value Them Both. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas House on Friday approved a constitutional amendment declaring women have no right to an abortion, setting up a vote in the Senate to place the amendment on the ballot in the August 2022 primary.

The Republican supermajority in the House refused to break ranks, resisting an onslaught of bitter complaints from Democrats about politically charged elements of the bill and claims of hypocrisy. The Value Them Both amendment passed by an 86-38 party-line vote, on the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

“Unlimited abortions hurts women and babies,” said Rep. Tory Arnberger, R-Great Bend. “Value Them Both preserve safeguards for those involved within this industry. Value Them Both lets the people continue to regulate abortion through their elected officials. Kansas feel very passionate about this issue. So why not let them vote?”

Democrats unsuccessfully argued for moving the date of when the amendment will appear on the ballot, and to secure protections for women whose lives are in danger or are the victims of sexual assault.

“Human rights should not be put to a popular vote,” said Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, D-Overland Park. “That is why they are called rights.”

The amendment is a response to an April 2019 decision by the Kansas Supreme Court, which blocked a state law that banned abortion by dilation and evacuation, a procedure used for 95% of patients who terminate a pregnancy in the second trimester.

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, to assert bodily integrity, and to exercise self-determination. This right 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.”

By finding a right to abortion in the state constitution, the decision protects abortion rights for Kansas women even if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Anti-abortion lobbyists and lawmakers responded to the decision by forming an amendment to supersede the high court. Last year, the House fell three votes shy of the 84 needed for a two-thirds majority approval.

The Kansas Senate was scheduled to debate and vote on the abortion amendment on Thursday but delayed the vote with several Republicans absent. Republicans hold a 29-11 advantage in the Senate, where the amendment would require 27 votes to pass. The Senate now plans to debate the amendment on Monday.

In the House debate, Democrats said the amendment will allow the Legislature to ban all abortions without exception, an outcome endorsed by several Republicans.

Rep. Louis Ruiz, D-Kansas City, said Republicans have rejected mask mandates amid the COVID-19 pandemic on the premise of individual liberties but refuse to apply the same standard to women’s medical procedures.

“We’re talking about a whole gender’s civil liberties that we’re trying to control,” Ruiz said. “The hypocrisy in that is astounding.”

The proposed constitutional amendment calls for “regulation of abortion” to be added to the state’s Bill of Rights. Language in the amendment gives lawmakers the authority to “pass laws regarding abortion,” including laws that apply to “pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, or circumstances of necessity to save the life of the mother.”

Rep. Patrick Penn, a Republican from Wichita, pushed back on concerns raised by Democrats about the need to install exceptions for mothers in those circumstances. Penn told the story of how his own mother became pregnant during an abusive, loveless marriage and faced overwhelming pressure to have an abortion.

“Before she passed away, my mother, Estelle, revealed to me that I was supposed to be aborted,” Penn said. “I was slated for death and brutal dismemberment in accordance with every excuse promoted by the pro death forces. She had too many kids. I was sickly. I was born into a single income household with marital problems and financial insecurity. My life was dependent on my mother’s mental health and convenience. And oh yes, my skin color put me on Margaret Sanger’s human weed list.”

In referencing Sanger, Penn, who is Black, was referring to an activist who promoted birth control and established organizations that evolved into Planned Parenthood.

Penn said he retired from the U.S. Army after a career in which he led troops into battle and defended freedom against enemies on three different continents, obtained several college degrees, and now serves in the Legislature as a result of his mother’s unyielding commitment to loving her child.

“She endured so much pressure to kill me but refused to do so,” Penn said. “In her deep courage, Estelle gave me life when all the forces of hell and society coerced her not to.”

Democrats objected to language used by Republicans in crafting the amendment, which references government-funded abortion — even though federal and state laws already restrict the use of tax dollars for abortions.

In an exchange with Arnberger, Rep. Susan Ruiz, D-Shawnee, asked her to explain what she means by talking about the “abortion industry.”

“They were groups that testified in favor of abortion,” Arnberger said.

“That’s not a definition of ‘industry,’ ” Ruiz replied.

Ruiz said “industry” is typically used to describe manufacturing.

“This word is very deceiving, trying to make it sound like if you have a medical practice that also performs abortion that they’re somehow profiting from that as you would manufacturing,” Ruiz said. “That’s ridiculous, thinking about abortion as an industry.”

Rep. Vic Miller said the decision to put the constitutional amendment before voters during a primary election was politically calculated to ensure no moderate Republicans would win the party’s nomination for a legislative seat. He recalled last year’s debate, in which supporters insisted the vote should take place during the August 2020 primary and not the November general election because it was important to act quickly — before the Supreme Court could strike down any more regulations.

Republicans resisted Miller’s offer to put the abortion amendment before voters in a special election in August of this year.

“So you’re no longer worried about the laws that are going to get it overturned and all the babies that are going to be killed?” he said.

Arnberger said the feedback from last year was that the process was too rushed. By delaying a popular vote until August 2022, she said, both sides will have plenty of time to inform voters.

Miller asked those who objected to a change in the election date to “go to bed tonight thinking about the 5,460 babies that will perish” between August of 2021 and August of 2022.

In a statement after the House vote, Gov. Laura Kelly said passage of the abortion amendment has the potential to harm the state’s ability to recruit businesses and workforce talent.

“I’ve always believed that every woman’s reproductive decisions should be left to her, her family and her physician,” Kelly said. “While I know others do not share my belief, I don’t think those supporting this amendment are aware of the consequences it will have for the state of Kansas and our reputation.”

Leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, Trust Women Foundation and Planned Parenthood Great Plains denounced the vote.

“One thing is clear amongst Kansans: We do not want to get into the business of taking rights away from others — from our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues,” said Julie Burkhart, an abortion provider and CEO of Trust Women. “This will do nothing but pit the state against women, and most importantly, pitting citizen against citizen.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.