Kansas abortion vote inspires arrest threat, personal lobbying, clergy letter, legal analysis

By: - July 29, 2022 8:30 am
A small group of protestors picket near the Dickinson County courthouse in Abilene to oppose a constitutional amendment on abortion. The gathering led the county to issue a news release saying they would be arrested if they get within 250 feet of the courthouse. (Mary Grant)

A small group of protestors picket near the Dickinson County courthouse in Abilene to oppose a constitutional amendment on abortion. The gathering led the county to issue a news release saying they would be arrested if they get within 250 feet of the courthouse. (Mary Grant)

TOPEKA — Dickinson County officials threatened to arrest Democrats who were protesting near the county courthouse in Abilene in opposition of the constitutional amendment on abortion.

The dispute is indicative of tensions over the abortion amendment on the Aug. 2 ballot. The Kansas election has attracted national attention — along with millions in advertising and an anti-abortion ground campaign — as the first public vote on abortion rights after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. The vote inspired a letter from clergy who support reproductive health care, and a legal analysis by the attorney general on the treatment of ectopic pregnancies.

A “yes” vote on the constitutional amendment would remove the right to terminate a pregnancy in Kansas and give the Legislature the authority to ban or heavily restrict abortion. A “no” vote preserves the status quo, in which abortion is regulated and legal through 22 weeks from gestation.

Last week, Dickinson County issued a news release declaring that the county courthouse, because it has a drop box inside, should be considered a 24/7 polling place “even when the courthouse is closed.” That means anybody who demonstrates within 250 feet of an entrance is subject to arrest, the news release said.

Rebecca Perkins, Dickinson County chairwoman for Democrats, questioned whether the courthouse in Abilene should be considered a polling place outside of business hours, when it is inaccessible to voters. She also said the small handful of people who were protesting were never actually within 250 feet of an entrance.

Perkins said county officials were responding to “some very ardent ‘vote yes’ advocates who were upset by the presence of anyone expressing a pro choice sentiment.”

As a result of the county news release, Perkins said, the protesters moved a little further down the street — and grew in ranks.

Perkins said she has distributed 200 “vote no” signs within the county in the past four weeks, and that about 10% of them have gone to people who say they are Republicans.

“I think the issue has generated much more of a backlash than the ‘pro-life’ crowd had anticipated. And I think they are justifiably worried about the outcome of this election,” Perkins said.

 

One of the many yard signs weighing in on the Aug. 2 constitutional amendment vote in Kansas states its case. (Eric Thomas/Kansas Reflector)
One of the many yard signs weighing in on the Aug. 2 constitutional amendment vote in Kansas states its case. (Eric Thomas/Kansas Reflector)

Ground game

Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America says its ground team in Kansas has visited 250,000 voters in person at their doors to lobby in favor of the constitutional amendment.

The amendment would nullify a 2019 Kansas Supreme Court ruling that determined the Kansas Constitution’s right to bodily autonomy applies to the decision to terminate a pregnancy. The ruling struck down a state law that banned a procedure used at the time for 95% of second-term abortions.

SBA Pro-Life America, in conjunction with its partners, said it plans to spend $78 million this election cycle. In Kansas, the organization has invested $1.3 million to influence voting on the so-called “Value Them Both” amendment. The money pays for canvassing, digital ads and mailers.

“The Value Them Both Amendment restores the rights of Kansans to enact life-affirming laws that protect moms and babies from the horror of abortion, and our canvassers have been working overtime to meet voters at their door and urge them to vote ‘yes’ on this important amendment,” said Mallory Carroll, a spokeswoman for SBA Pro-Life America.

Regulations in Kansas already ban late-term abortions and the use of taxpayer funding for abortions, except when the procedure is necessary to save a patient’s life. State law prohibits health insurance policies from covering abortion.

Other regulations require a patient to receive state-ordered counseling designed to discourage an abortion, wait at least 24 hours, and look at an ultrasound image.

Supporters of the amendment say those regulations could be challenged under the 2019 state Supreme Court ruling, but legal experts say the rules are likely to be upheld.

 

A letter signed by 64 clergy members who oppose the constitutional amendment says women should be able to make a decision in accordance with their personal conscience and beliefs. (Eric Thomas/Kansas Reflector)

Clergy letter

Kansans for Constitutional Freedom has enlisted 64 Kansas clergy members in the effort to defeat the amendment.

The clergy members, who represent denominations that include United Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational, Episcopalian, Unitarian and Judaism, signed an open letter in which they draw a distinction between religious faith and the government taking away a woman’s right to make private medical decisions.

The list includes clergy members from Lawrence, Manhattan, Overland Park, Prairie Village, Lindsborg, Wichita, Topeka, Kansas City, Mission, Hutchinson, Olathe, Pratt, Fairway, Lenexa, Shawnee, Wellsville, Osawatomie, Holton, Winfield and Derby.

They said it is important to recognize that many faiths, including some Christian denominations, support access to reproductive health care. A woman should be able to make a decision in accordance with her personal conscience and beliefs, they argue.

“Our religious traditions teach us that all people have dignity and worth and that we have a particular responsibility to care for those who are most vulnerable,” they wrote in the letter. “It is important that we recognize the very different and complex issues and situations experienced by people seeking abortion. Some are the victims of rape or incest. Some face life-threatening complications. Some are struggling with other personal tragedies. Each of them deserves the right to make private medical decisions for themselves, free from government interference.”

 

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt answers questions from the news media at Monday’s redistricting arguments at the state supreme court. (Thad Allton for Kansas Reflector)
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt answers questions from the news media after a hearing in May at the Kansas Supreme Court. The Republican candidate for governor issued a legal opinion that says the upcoming vote won’t affect treatment for ectopic pregnancies. (Thad Allton for Kansas Reflector)

Ectopic opinion

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt says the constitutional amendment won’t affect treatment for ectopic pregnancies or miscarriages because they shouldn’t be considered abortion under Kansas law.

An ectopic pregnancy occurs when a fertilized egg grows outside of the womb, where it can’t survive. If left untreated, it can cause life-threatening bleeding.

Schmidt, a Republican running for governor, said current abortion law excludes the removal of “a dead unborn child who died as the result of natural causes in utero, accidental trauma or a criminal assault on the pregnant woman or her unborn child.” Even if an ectopic pregnancy were considered abortion, Schmidt wrote in a formal opinion, Kansas law provides exceptions to preserve the life of the mother.

Rep. John Eplee, a Republican physician from Atchison, requested Schmidt’s opinion on the subject. AG opinions are nonbinding.

Opponents to the constitutional amendment objected to Schmidt’s analysis because it ignores the likelihood that lawmakers will rewrite state law if the constitutional amendment passes.

In audio obtained by Kansas Reflector, a supporter of the constitutional amendment and state senators talked openly about pursuing abortion-banning legislation that was introduced this past session. The bill they referenced would only allow treatment of an ectopic pregnancy after it threatens a patient’s life. All other abortions would be banned without consideration for rape, incest, or the patient’s health.

“We’ve heard the leaked audio that confirms their end goal is a total ban on abortion with no exceptions,” said Ashley All, spokeswoman for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, in response to the AG’s opinion. “This amendment will mandate government control over private medical decisions and open the door to an extreme ban on abortion that puts women’s lives at risk. No amount of PR can change that. Not only that, if this amendment passes they can change any law they want regarding abortion, even this one.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.

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