Opinion

‘Mission critical’: Four numbers show why abortion rights in Kansas face an urgent test

September 22, 2021 3:33 am

Abortion-rights protesters gather at the U.S. Supreme Court. Its decision allowing an anti- abortion Texas law to take effect has sparked outrage. (Robin Bravender)

This is not a drill.

Extremist anti-abortion forces have victory in their sights, and women across the nation have good reason to fear the imminent end of Roe v. Wade. This reality could soon come to Kansas.

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month refused to stop an unprecedented Texas law that effectively bans all abortions in that state. Next summer, Kansas voters will decide on a constitutional amendment that, if passed, would make a Texas-style ban plausible here. States across the country are watching, and women could pay the price.

“In some ways, this is the last stand for reproductive rights in Kansas and across the country,” said Rachel Sweet, policy director at Planned Parenthood Great Plains.

If you haven’t been paying attention, this may seem like a lot to take in. You might not believe that we’ve actually arrived at this point. But four numbers tell the story. Four numbers explain the peril and the promise of this moment.

 

Six

Women cannot terminate their pregnancies after six weeks under the new Texas law.

Because most women aren’t aware of their pregnancies after that short a time, it’s effectively a ban on the procedure. What’s more, the state placed the power of enforcing the law in the hands of private citizens, authorizing them to bring civil lawsuits against anyone who performs an abortion or helps a woman get one.

In the past, courts have routinely turned aside state restrictions on abortion, leading conservative politicians to pass bad bills as a matter of course. They were messaging exercises, designed to rile up base voters and to be ignored when inconvenient.

Things changed. Once it was clear that former President Donald Trump had swung the balance of the U.S. Supreme Court by replacing moderate Anthony Kennedy and liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg with conservatives Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, the path toward a repeal of Roe v. Wade looked clear for the first time in decades. True believers rushed to pass limits on the procedure, and Texas was the first to notch a win.

“This is the first time we’ve seen something like this that is so extreme actually be allowed to go into effect by our court system,” Sweet said. “So I do think it is a shock to the system.”

I reached out to Kansans for Life, the state’s main anti-abortion group, to ask for their take on the Texas law. They didn’t answer my questions about it, instead reiterating support for the proposed state constitutional amendment.

 

Two

That’s the second of August next year, also known as primary Election Day. You might not always show up at the polls then, and that’s precisely the point — that’s the day that an amendment clearing the way for a total abortion ban in Kansas will be on the ballot.

That’s right, the Sunflower State will have its own abortion battle next summer, and it won’t be up to a court to decide. It will be up to you.

Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes emphasizes the consequences of a proposed state constitutional amendment. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The stakes couldn’t be higher, said Dinah Sykes, the Democratic Senate minority leader.

“It’s not just a piece of legislation that can be changed; we are changing our Constitution,” she said. “This is not just an everyday bill that, you know, we can amend next year when we realize the consequences of what it actually does.”

We arrived here because of a courageous decision by the Kansas Supreme Court. In Hodes & Nauser v. Derek Schmidt, it found that the Kansas Constitution protects a woman’s right to choose. This made any attempts by Kansas legislators to restrict access to the procedure or harass health care providers null and void. Anti-abortion forces mobilized to back an amendment, condescendingly dubbed “Value Them Both,” to void the court’s decision.

The goal should be clear. Whatever else you’re told about the amendment, whatever ads you see or rhetoric you hear, bear this in mind: It paves the way for a total abortion ban in Kansas. It does not exempt cases of rape or incest, or saving a mother’s life.

Sweet sees an opportunity.

“This is an opportunity for us as Kansans to say, we’re not going to be Texas, we’re not doing that here,” she said. “We care too much about women and people who can become pregnant to enact this kind of legislation.” 

 

27.1

That was the voter turnout for the last Kansas off-year primary election, in 2018. Only 457,598 ballots were cast out of a pool of 1.8 million registered voters.

Turnout last year was notably better, 34.2%, but the number was perhaps boosted by the presidential race. Either of those numbers should be concerning to those looking ahead to next year’s primary. A vast majority of Kansas voters have not shown up in the past. And if they’re not aware of the stakes in 2022, they may not show up then, either.

This was intentional. Anti-abortion advocates wanted to put the amendment on a ballot where they thought they had the best choice to win. Sykes sees it with the clarity that comes from legislative service.

“They wanted to hand-select the people that they know, historically, are the ones who vote in those primaries,” she said. “And those are your more conservative, right-wing voters that are engaged in that. And they didn’t want all Kansans to have a voice.”

Remember, this is Kansas. We’re not traditionally known for our robust Democratic Party apparatus. Primaries for the party may occasionally involve choosing between one name and a blank space underneath. Republicans, on the other hand, have real decisions to make.

Sweet acknowledged that turnout will be critical. “We’re going to have to mobilize a lot of Kansans who support reproductive rights to show up when they need to show up, at a time when they normally don’t.”

 

86

That’s the percentage of Kansans who support some kind of access to abortion, according to a Fox News poll.

Wait a second, I hear you exclaim. I thought abortion was a divided issue. How is this possible?

The answer is that people have a range of views on the procedure, ranging from full-throated support to total opposition. Many of us fall somewhere in between. That means that, if pressed, an overwhelming number of Kansans agree that abortion shouldn’t be banned — but they might not agree on much else. Some might say it should be legal for a short span of time, or only in exceptional cases. Others may say it should be available more broadly, but with a hard stop at some point during pregnancy. 

Not all of these voters would think of themselves as supporting abortion rights, or would back those rights with their ballots. The challenge faced by Sweet and Planned Parenthood as they  prepare for next summer and the campaign ahead is making the situation crystal clear for voters across the ideological spectrum.

“We know, overall, as much as we’d like to act like abortion is a super-polarizing issue, the vast majority of Kansans believe that abortion should be safe and legal,” Sweet said. “And this is really going to be about making sure that people understand what’s at stake. … 

“This is mission critical to making sure that abortion remains safe and legal in the state of Kansas.”

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.

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