As Kansas lawmakers target abortion rights, opposition unites at Statehouse

Day of advocacy planned to demonstrate ‘collective power’ in fight for bodily autonomy

By: - March 6, 2023 3:19 pm
Sisters Lila, left, and Margaret Bhattarai, of Lawrence, listen to directions on how to engage legislators during a March 6, 2023, rally in support of bodily autonomy at the Statehouse in Topeka

Sisters Lila, left, and Margaret Bhattarai of Lawrence listen to directions on how to engage legislators during a March 6, 2023, rally in support of bodily autonomy at the Statehouse in Topeka. The sisters said they were participating because they are upset by anti-abortion and anti-transgender legislation. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — If Lila and Margaret Bhattarai had their way, they would replace “incredibly misogynistic” legislation floating around the Statehouse with laws that protect people’s rights to do what they want with their own bodies.

The sisters from Lawrence joined a coalition of women and men from across the state who gathered Monday at the Capitol to leverage their voices against a multitude of anti-abortion and anti-transgender proposals.

“I would destigmatize abortion and existing in their own body and not having to conform to what other people’s ideas of gender or family are,” Margaret Bhattarai said. “You should be able to be a woman or anybody and exist how you want to exist without any politicians or government people being in your business trying to force you to conform to something.”

As Lila Bhattarai put it: “The government should not be in your personal bodily autonomy.”

Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes, Trust Women, the American Civil Liberties Union and others organizations invited women, transgender people and their advocates to the Statehouse for a day of bodily autonomy advocacy. They gathered in the north wing of the second floor to get their marching orders for the day.

That included advice on how to talk to lawmakers, and talking points for a list of bills the organizations identified as harmful to women.

“I do wish we were brought together under slightly different circumstances, I will say, other than, you know, direct attacks on our bodily autonomy, reproductive freedom and the rights of our trans neighbors,” said Lauren Klapper, with Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes. “But showing up here to advocate for ourselves and our communities is an act of love. And it also demonstrates the extent of our collective power.”

Republicans in the Legislature responded to the stunning landslide defeat in August of a constitutional amendment on abortion by entertaining new ideas for restricting access to reproductive health care in the state, regardless of their legal merits.

Several bills would incentivize donations to unregulated pregnancy crisis centers, which pressure women not to have abortions. One bill would take money away from low-income families who are currently receiving federal aid and use the funds to establish state-run anti-abortion programs. Another would block doctors from prescribing the abortion pill after a telemedicine consultation.

The latest proposal would allow residents to sue women who have an abortion, and anyone who helps them, for a minimum of $10,000.

Rija Nazir
Rija Nazir helped organize the fight against a proposed constitutional amendment on abortion, which voters rejected last year. She says she is bothered by lawmakers ignoring voters and pursuing “countless abortion bans.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“The legislators that roam these halls witnessed the election results yet take it with a grain of salt,” said Rija Nazir, lead organizer for Vote Neigh, a youth-led organization that fights to preserve reproductive health rights. “They think they can dismiss a historic turnout with a landslide win and pursue their own agendas. How democratic and patriotic is it to dismiss the results of a statewide election?”

The Kansas Supreme Court in 2019 determined the right to bodily autonomy in the Kansas Constitution includes the right to terminate a pregnancy. The Republican-led Legislature placed an amendment before voters last year to nullify the Supreme Court ruling and give lawmakers the power to impose a total ban, without restrictions. Voters rejected the amendment by a 59-41 margin.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s most recent report on abortions in Kansas shows 7,849 terminated pregnancies in Kansas in 2021, including 3,937 by Kansas residents. Six of those individual were younger than 14. Mifepristone, the abortion pill, was used for 5,321 abortions, or 67.8%.

Senate Bill 286, introduced last week by Cheyenne Vandeventer on behalf of Students for Life Action, would make it illegal to manufacture, distribute or use mifepristone. The bill bans all abortion, except to save the life of a mother, and features a Texas-style bounty on women, their supporters, and health care providers in the form of costly civil actions. No hearing on the bill has been scheduled.

House Bill 2429 would require the Department for Children and Families to establish programs that increase resources that promote childbirth instead of abortion for women facing unplanned pregnancies. The services include adoption assistance and maternity homes. A public awareness program would be subcontracted through an anti-abortion group.

An estimated $1.7 million to support the programs would be diverted from families currently receiving federal aid through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The program provides cash assistance to the lowest income families.

A House committee has scheduled a hearing on HB 2429 for Tuesday.

Lauren Klapper, with Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes, provides instruction on how to engage lawmakers during a rally on bodily autonomy
Lauren Klapper, with Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes, provides instruction on how to engage lawmakers during a rally on bodily autonomy March 6, 2023, at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Senate Bill 5 would ban the use of telemedicine to prescribe mifepristone. The Senate passed the legislation 27-12 on Feb. 23, with one Republican joining Democrats in opposition, and another Republican passing.

Senate Bill 96 establishes an income tax credit for nonprofit pregnancy centers that discourage abortion. Total tax credits would be capped at $10 million annually. The Senate passed the legislation 28-11 on Feb. 23 on a party-line vote with one Republican absent. House Bill 2135, which hasn’t received a hearing, would provide a similar tax credit.

“If states are giving tax credits to people who are donating to these centers, then the state is endorsing unregulated, unethical and harmful tactics that these organizations use,” Klapper said.

House Bill 2313 would create protections for infants under the pretense that a failed abortion could result in a child being born alive. A House committee scheduled a hearing on the bill for Wednesday.

Nazir, the Vote Neigh organizer, encouraged participants to engage legislators on the assortment of bills.

“Why should we feel timid and ashamed when it comes to talking to them about issues regarding our own lives?” Nazir said. “Instead, these same legislators should feel embarrassed and called out when they turn their backs on us. When it comes to these dangerous abortion bills, your legislators deserve to be questioned.

“We need to normalize and encourage constantly knocking on the doors of your elected officials, Senate and House members who swore to answer and protect our best interests. If not us, then who will?”

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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.