Voters in conservative Kansas resoundingly affirm support for access to abortion

Kansas voters on Tuesday sent a resounding message about their desire to protect abortion rights, rejecting a ballot measure in a conservative state with deep ties to the anti-abortion movement that would have allowed the Republican-controlled legislature to tighten restrictions or ban the procedure outright.

It was the first test of voter sentiment after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June that overturned the constitutional right to abortion, providing an unexpected result with potential implications for the coming midterm elections.

Anti-abortion lawmakers wanted to have the vote coincide with the state’s August primary, during which twice as many Republicans as Democrats had voted in the decade leading up to Tuesday’s election.

The move backfired. With most of the vote counted, they were prevailing by roughly 20 percentage points, with the turnout approaching what’s typical for a fall election for governor.

While it was just one state, it was a major victory for abortion rights advocates and also provided some hope for Democrats looking to mobilize voters for the November midterm elections.

“This vote makes clear what we know: the majority of Americans agree that women should have access to abortion and should have the right to make their own health-care decisions,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.

After calling on Congress to “restore the protections of Roe” in federal law, Biden added, “And, the American people must continue to use their voices to protect the right to women’s health care, including abortion.”

Biden on Wednesday will sign an executive order aimed in part at making it easier for women seeking abortions to travel between states to obtain access to the procedure.

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Strong anti-abortion support historically

The vote provided a warning to Republicans who had celebrated the Supreme Court ruling and were moving swiftly with abortion bans or near-bans in nearly half the states.

Anti-abortion “Summer of Mercy” protests in 1991 inspired abortion opponents to take over the Kansas Republican Party and make the legislature more conservative. As well, Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was murdered in Wichita in 2009 by an anti-abortion extremist.

“Kansans bluntly rejected anti-abortion politicians’ attempts at creating a reproductive police state,” said Kimberly Inez McGuire, executive director of Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity. “Today’s vote was a powerful rebuke and a promise of the mounting resistance.”

A closeup of a young woman who appears to be crying.
Olivia Lemmon listens Tuesday night in Overland Park, Kan., as organizers address the crowd at an election watch party for Value Them Both, a group in favour of a constitutional amendment removing abortion protections from the Kansas constitution. (Charlie Riedel/The Associated Press)

The proposed amendment to the Kansas constitution would have added language stating that it does not grant the right to abortion. A 2019 state Supreme Court decision declared that access to abortion is a “fundamental” right under the state’s Bill of Rights, preventing a ban and potentially thwarting legislative efforts to enact new restrictions.

The referendum was closely watched as a barometer of liberal and moderate voters’ anger over the Supreme Court’s ruling scrapping the nationwide right to abortion. In Kansas, abortion opponents wouldn’t say what legislation they’d pursue if the amendment were passed and bristled when opponents predicted it would lead to a ban.

Mallory Carroll, a spokesperson for the national anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, described the vote as “a huge disappointment” for the movement. She added that after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, “We must work exponentially harder to achieve and maintain protections for unborn children and their mothers.”

‘I want her to have the same rights’

The electorate in Tuesday’s vote wasn’t typical for a Kansas primary, particularly because tens of thousands of unaffiliated voters cast ballots.

Kristy Winter, 52, a Kansas City-area teacher and unaffiliated voter, voted against the measure and brought her 16-year-old daughter with her to her polling place.

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“I want her to have the same right to do what she feels is necessary, mostly in the case of rape or incest,” she said. “I want her to have the same rights my mother has had most of her life.”

Opponents of the measure predicted that the anti-abortion groups and lawmakers behind the measure would push quickly for an abortion ban if voters approved it. Before the vote, the measure’s supporters refused to say whether they would pursue a ban.

The 2019 Kansas Supreme Court decision protecting abortion rights blocked a law that banned the most common second-trimester procedure, and another law imposing special health regulations on abortion providers also is on hold.

The vote is the start of what could be a long-running series of legal battles playing out where lawmakers at the state level are more conservative on abortion than citizens, governors or the courts.

Kentucky will vote in November on whether to add language similar to Kansas’ proposed amendment to its state constitution, while Vermont will decide in November whether to add an abortion rights provision to its constitution.

As well, the U.S. Justice Department sued Idaho on Tuesday over its statute that criminalizes abortions, subjecting anyone who performs or attempts to perform an abortion to a felony punishable by between two and five years in prison. Attorney General Merrick Garland argued that it violates federal law conflicts requiring doctors to provide pregnant women medically necessary treatment that could include abortion.

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