Rachel Sweet, campaign manager for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, smiles at the Kansans for Constitutional Freedom watch party after Kansans voted to keep abortion a constitutional right on Tuesday. (Lily O’Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)
OVERLAND PARK — Kansas voters in a landslide Tuesday defeated a constitutional amendment that would have stripped residents of abortion rights, defying polling and political observers who expected a close result.
The ballot measure was failing by a 60-40 margin late Tuesday after voters responded to an intense and costly campaign marked by dubious claims by amendment supporters and the unraveling of protections by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The question before voters, in the form of a confusingly worded constitutional amendment, was whether to end the right to abortion in Kansas by voting “yes” or preserve the right by voting “no.”
“You guys, we did it,” said Rachel Sweet, campaign manager for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, as she addressed a crowd of abortion-rights supporters at a watch party in Overland Park. “We blocked this amendment. Can you believe it?”
The outcome could have far-reaching political implications, with a governor’s race and congressional seats on the ballot in November. It also means reproductive health care will remain available in a state where six girls younger than 14 were among nearly 8,000 patients who received an abortion last year.
“I’ve always maintained that a woman’s reproductive health care decisions should be between her and her physician,” said Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, in a statement to campaign supporters. “I’m proud to say that Kansans stood up for our fundamental rights today.”
The proposed constitutional amendment is a reaction to a 2019 decision by the Kansas Supreme Court, which struck down a state law banning a common second-term abortion procedure. The court determined that the right to bodily autonomy in the state constitution’s Bill of Rights includes the decision to terminate a pregnancy.
That meant abortion remained legal in Kansas when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, allowing each state to determine its own rules for reproductive health care. Kansas attracted national attention as the first state to vote on abortion rights in the post-Roe world.
President Joe Biden, in a statement, said the vote makes clear “the majority of Americans agree that women should have access to abortion and should have the right to make their own health care decisions.”
“Congress should listen to the will of the American people and restore the protections of Roe as federal law,” Biden said.
Voters showed up in unforeseen numbers in urban areas of the state, while rural areas underperformed compared with turnout in the presidential race two years ago.
“From the moment lawmakers put this on a primary ballot, we knew this was going to be an uphill battle, but we did not despair,” Sweet said. “We put in the work and these numbers speak for themself.”
Dawn Rattan, who attended the watch party in Overland Park, said the defeat of the amendment shows that reproductive health care is an issue that crosses party lines, “and people everywhere want women to have a choice.” She was moved to tears when the result was announced.
“I was so scared,” Rattan said. “I was so worried that it was going to be really close, and this is just so decisive, it’s not even close. So I’m just happy and I’m not moved to tears often, so I’m kind of embarrassed, but I’m just really happy.”
Passage of the constitutional amendment would have nullified the Kansas Supreme Court ruling and given the Legislature the authority to pass any kind of abortion restriction, without exceptions for rape, incest or a patient’s health. The amendment’s defeat means abortion will continue to be legal — and heavily regulated — in Kansas.
Supporters and opponents of the amendment spent millions of dollars in campaigns to educate and influence voters.
The so-called Value Them Both Coalition refused to say whether it would support a ban on abortion if the amendment passes, routinely denouncing claims that the amendment equated to an abortion ban. But audio obtained by Kansas Reflector revealed that supporters of the abortion amendment already had legislation in mind that would ban abortion from conception until birth, without exceptions.
The Value Them Both Coalition denied Kansas Reflector entry to its election night watch party because the organization doesn’t approve of Reflector news stories.
In a statement, Dannielle Underwood, a spokeswoman for the Value Them Both Coalition, said the outcome of Tuesday’s election is a temporary setback.
“We will be back,” she said.
Mallory Carroll, spokeswoman for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said in a statement that the loss was “a huge disappointment for pro-life Kansans and Americans nationwide.”
“The stakes for the pro-life movement in the upcoming midterm elections could not be higher, and there will be many more factors in play,” Carroll said. “It is critical that pro-life candidates go on offense to expose the extremism of Democrats’ policy goals for nationalized abortion on demand paid for by taxpayers.”
On Monday, Democrats received a text message — eventually connected to former Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas — that inaccurately told them to vote “yes” to preserve reproductive health rights.
Opponents of the amendment have complained about its misleading language. A line-by-line analysis by the Guardian concluded “the ballot language sows confusion in an effort to push people to vote ‘yes.’ ”
The amendment claims to ban government-funded abortion, which is already banned under state law, and suggests the Legislature “could” provide exceptions in state law for rape, incest or the life of a mother — even though the amendment doesn’t actually require those exceptions.
Annual reporting from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment shows that a typical abortion in Kansas involves a woman of color between the ages of 20 and 30 who lives in Kansas or Missouri and is unmarried, already has at least one child, has never had an abortion before, is less than nine weeks from gestation and uses the drug mifepristone to terminate her pregnancy.
Because of existing restrictions, which remain in place, the patient has received state-ordered counseling designed to discourage her from having an abortion, waited at least 24 hours, looked at an ultrasound image and paid for the procedure out of her own pocket.
KDHE reported no abortions occurred outside of 22 weeks, the legal threshold except in cases where the mother’s life is in danger.
Sweet said the defeat of the abortion amendment was historic for Kansas and America.
“We will not hand over our constitutional rights and our bodily autonomy to the government, and we will take care of each other and look out for each other because that is what Kansas is all about,” Sweet said.
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