Kansas voters decide to protect abortion rights

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Kansas voters rejected an historical effort Tuesday to remove abortion as a protected right from the state constitution in what was characterized as a serious setback for opponents of abortion rights nationally.

Even with a history steeped in abortion politics, Kansas became the first state since 2014 to vote against rewriting its constitution so it would no longer protect a woman’s right to an abortion, a defeat some said was remarkable for a primary in a solidly red state.

“Freedom has prevailed. The constitutional rights of Kansas women have been protected,” said Rachel Sweet, campaign manager for the coalition opposing the amendment.

With 76% of the vote in at about 10:40 p.m., the amendment was losing decisively in what was the first electoral test of abortion following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The Associated Press called the race at 9:40 p.m.

The amendment was losing 61% to 39% and was defeated in the urban counties, which contributed to its loss. Even in Sedgwick County, where support for the amendment was believed to be strong, it had only received 41% of the vote.

The amendment was losing in eight counties that Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly carried when she was elected in 2018, which before the election was seen as the primary path for defeating at the amendment in the primary election.

The outcome of Tuesday’s election, which cost about $12.4 million in broadcast spending alone, should send a resounding message to the rest of the country about similar efforts to curtail a woman’s right to an abortion, some observers said.

“A win for amendment opponents in August when most voters are not attuned to politics in a state known for its conservative brand of politics would be a big blow for the anti-abortion movement,” said Glen Halva-Nuebauer, who studies abortion politics at Furman University.

The Value Them Both Association, the primary coalition supporting the amendment, blamed the loss on misinformation from the opponents that was spread by mainstream media.

“This outcome is a temporary setback, and our dedicated fight to value women and babies is far from over,” spokeseperson Danielle Underwood said.

“We will be back,” she said.

In one of the biggest votes of a generation, Kansans refused to reverse a 2019 landmark state Supreme Court ruling that found a right to an abortion was embedded within the Kansas Constitution.

The election came just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which had engendered fears that the Kansas Legislature would move to ban abortion if it was no longer constitutionally protected.

Opponents said passage of the amendment would have set the stage for a conservative Legislature to ban the procedure although supporters couched the debate in terms of protecting the health of women with stronger regulations.

The opponents pounced on an audio of a ex staffer for the Value Them Both Coalition telling an audience that the Legislature was ready to go with a bill banning abortion that Republican state Rep. Trevor Jacobs introduced earlier this year.

Jacobs introduced the bill toward the end of the last legislative session, but the legislation never got any action although many believed it would have been revived if the amendment had passed.

Halva-Neubauer explained the historical context of the amendment, noting the uniqueness of the climate surrounding Tuesday’s vote.

“While abortion questions have long been a staple on the ballot of state voters across the nation, today’s vote is taking place in a very different environment,” he said.

“Never before has a vote on an amendment been so clearly linked to the banning of abortion in a state,” he said.

Previous ballot questions, he said, might chip away at abortion rights but with the federal protections of the U.S. Constitution in place.

“That’s not the case today,” he said.

In 2019, the state Supreme Court found that the right to abortion was protected under a strict scrutiny standard, which made any new restrictions presumptively unconstitutional unless the state could show it was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.

The amendment would have eliminated  the so-called “strict scutiny” standard and returned power to the Legislature to restrict abortion as it sees fit, which opponents say would have led to a ban on the procedure, especially now that Roe has been overturned.

The vote was strikingly different than four other states – Alabama, Louisiana, West Virginia and Tennessee – that have passed similar measures since 2014.

The narrowest margins of victory were in Tennessee with 53% and West Virginia with 52% while winning by more substantial margins in Louisiana and Alabama.

But this vote came weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe, which heightened the energy in the campaign just weeks before the election.

The campaign was marked by incidents of vandalism against churches supporting the amendment, frequent protests against the amendment across the state and last-minute text messages sent by both sides that were seen as out of bounds.

Opponents of the amendment latched onto one traced back to a political action committee created by former Congressman Tim Huelskamp that they criticized as deceiving and it made headline statewide in the closing hours of the campaign.

Nevertheless, national observers believed the odds were stacked in favor of the amendment because the election was held during a primary election with lower turnout that tends to be dominated by conservative voters.

“The anti-abortion movement has the most to lose here,” said Greer Donley, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in reproductive rights.

“I would say most people expect that they’re going to win because it’s Kansas. If the referendum loses in Kansas, that says a lot,” Donley said hours before the election results came in on Tuesday night.

“If it loses, then I think that could be seen as kind of a big pendulum swing in where we’re going and a big, early victory that potentially starts paving the way for future abortion rights,” she said.

Susan B. Pro-Life America, which spent $1.3 million campaign for the amendment, called its defeat a “huge disappointment for pro-life Kansans and Americans nationwide.”

“The abortion lobby’s message to voters was rife with lies that ultimately drowned out the truth,” said Mallory Carroll, spokesperson for SBA Pro-Life America.

“Because of tonight’s results, Kansas could shortly become home to unrestricted abortion on demand – even late-term abortion without limits, paid for by taxpayers,” Carroll said in a statement.

“The people and their elected legislators now have no recourse to use the tools of democracy to enact laws that reflect consensus.”