A crowd of 150-plus people gather June 24, 2022, outside the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka in opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade and to protest the proposed Kansas abortion amendment. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — When Topeka resident Sue McKenna was 19, she became pregnant with a man she was sure she would marry. That was until she met his wife.
McKenna, now 77, was unable to legally get an abortion, so she devised a plan to get to the border and walk into Mexico for the procedure. She spoke no Spanish and as it turned out could not afford the bus fare to get there anyway.
In the end, McKenna had the child and gave him up for adoption, but as a mixed-race child in the late 1960s, she said, there was not a long list of families looking to bring him into their family.
“I was the only one on the planet to actually want him and I could not take care of him,” McKenna said. “I was not able to feed myself.”
McKenna spent two years agonizing over the well-being of the child until he was adopted. Years later they reconnected.
“He’s 56 and he supports the right to choose,” she said.
With the U.S. Supreme Court’s choice to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, McKenna worried others like her would not be as lucky to have that happy ending. She was joined by more than 150 people outside the Kansas Statehouse on Friday evening, many of whom shared accounts of sexual assault, rape or their abortion story.
Chloe Easley, of Topeka, spoke about the shame that comes with being a victim of rape or sexual assault. From the age of 5 or 6 until 12, Easley was raped by family members, but the shame forced those memories away.
“I tried to reach out to my parents about it and they didn’t believe me,” Easley, 19, said. “I was always hoping that somebody could hear me screaming when my head was really deep underwater, and they never did.”
Easley said speaking up now was important because people should not have to feel that way when seeking help.
“You shouldn’t feel ashamed,” Easley said. “If you’ve been molested or assaulted or raped by anybody close to you or a complete stranger, you should never feel ashamed to raise your voice and to speak your truth.”
With a proposed constitutional amendment on the Aug. 2 primary ballot offering a vote to determine whether the right to an abortion will remain in the Kansas Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court decision raised already high stakes in Kansas. Under a state Supreme Court ruling, Kansans maintained the right to terminate a pregnancy even after the ruling from the nation’s highest court.
Those at the protest were adamant that, despite state legislators claiming they would not ban abortions, the passage of the amendment would place them on that course.
“In the last 10 years, 28 bills and concurrent resolutions have been introduced, 12 measures passed one chamber, three concurrent resolutions were adopted by both chambers and six bills were signed into law, while the U.S. Constitution and the Kansas Constitution protected our rights,” said Alexis Simmons, a protest organizer and spokeswoman for Kansas House Democrats. “So, without these constitutional protections, it’s all out there.”
Organizers set up tables to help people sign up to vote before the July 12 registration deadline for the Aug. 2 primary. Passage of the amendment would nullify a 2019 state Supreme Court ruling that said a right to bodily autonomy in the state’s Bill of Rights included a woman’s right to an abortion.
Topeka resident Jolie Lippitt said she is a survivor of rape and a suicide attempt, now raising a Black transgender child. She is also Indigenous, which means the added fear in the knowledge that she is more likely than most to go missing or be murdered.
Despite almost talking herself out of attending, she took party in the demonstration because she said those fears should not be something the child she is raising should have to live with.
Ann Mah, a member of the Kansas State Board of Education, encouraged those in attendance to show up in strong numbers to vote “no” on the state constitutional amendment because of the direction it would send Kansas.
“My mom remembers the time when women couldn’t even get a credit card in their name,” Mah said. “I want my granddaughter to have at least as many rights as I have, and I don’t think we should be using the constitution to take rights away.”
A pair of Democratic Kansas House candidates also spoke at the rally. Joshua Luttrell, a candidate for House District 55, spoke to the message U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sent in a concurring opinion listing same-sex marriage and contraception as future topics for consideration.
“Individuals in our country that want to secure reproductive rights or our right to marry, we want our privacy — all of those things are under fire now,” he said. “This decision basically says, ‘We didn’t decide it today, but I want to decide it and we will have decisions that will take away substantive due process.’ ”
Courtney Tripp, seeking election in the state’s 117th House District, said each person who shared their story was making a difference and could represent hope to someone in a similar place.
“All eyes are going to be on Kansas on August 2,” Tripp said. “So, feel that pain, gather with friends, find support, get angry and then let’s start organizing, let’s vote and let’s be a beacon of hope in the middle of the U.S. right here in Kansas.”
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