Health Care

Why Kansas will be a bellwether in abortion fight

In the wake of the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, President Biden pointed to the November elections, saying, “This fall, Roe is on the ballot.” 

But in Kansas, abortion rights are on the ballot even sooner.  

Kansans will vote on a state constitutional amendment on abortion on Aug. 2, setting the state up as a key bellwether for how abortion rights resonate as a voting issue ahead of the midterm elections.  

The amendment would overturn a 2019 state Supreme Court ruling finding that the Kansas constitution protects abortion rights, and then leave it up to the GOP-controlled legislature to decide how far to go in adding restrictions or bans on abortion.  

The vote is gaining national attention, particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court decision removing federal protections for abortion in late June. 

Progressives like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are posting on social media urging their followers to donate to defeat the amendment. Warren said if it passes it will “leave a huge reproductive health desert in the middle of the country.”  

On the other side, the national anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List announced a $1.3 million investment in supporting the amendment in recent days, and said its canvassers have already visited 100,000 homes in the state.  

Kansas will be the “epicenter of national abortion politics,” until the vote, said Neal Allen, a professor of political science at Wichita State University. 

“It’s going to be a real interesting test of where the American public is after the Supreme Court’s decision,” he added.  

The result in Kansas, the first statewide vote on abortion rights after the Supreme Court ruling, could help shed light on how successful Democrats can be nationally in using abortion to try to energize supporters for the November elections, despite stiff political headwinds given rising inflation, Biden’s lagging approval ratings and the history of a president’s party losing seats in a midterm.  

Kansas is a red state, and Allen said he would be “surprised” if the amendment failed, but the outcome is far from certain.  

“Kansas isn’t as conservative as a lot of people might think,” he said, noting the state currently has a Democratic governor.  

There has not been any recent public polling on the amendment. But a poll last year from Fort Hays State University on abortion rights more generally found that 60 percent of Kansas residents opposed making abortion illegal in all circumstances, including rape.  

A slim majority, 50.5 percent, said “the Kansas government should not place any regulations on the circumstances under which women can get abortions,” compared to 25.4 percent who disagreed.   

In an added challenge for abortion rights supporters, Republican legislators put the measure on the August primary ballot, which generally has much lower turnout than the November general election.  

Given that move by the GOP and the general rightward lean of Kansas, Allen said that even if the amendment passes by a small margin, for national purposes “it’s really a clue that will show that at least at this point in time the pro-choice side is really energized by this issue.” 

Ashley All, a spokesperson for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, a group fighting the amendment and seeking to protect abortion rights, said the August primary ballot vote makes it “difficult” but that the group is working to make people aware and had seen an increase in attention after the Supreme Court ruling last month. 

“The decision last week was a wake up call for a lot of people across the country and also in Kansas,” she said.  

“They’re pretty angry quite frankly, and we’ve seen a significant increase in just volunteering” in the wake of the decision, she added.  

Both sides are framing the consequences of the amendment in starkly different terms.  

“This amendment gives politicians in Kansas the power to pass any law they want regarding abortion, including a total ban,” All said.  

One ad fighting the amendment notably does not say the word “abortion” at all, instead telling voters to “say no to more government control.” 

On the other side, Danielle Underwood, a spokesperson for the Value Them Both Coalition, a group supporting the amendment, stressed that the amendment itself does not ban abortion, and simply “gives the people back their voice” in “deciding appropriate limits” on abortion.  

Underwood pointed to national progressives like Warren who have called attention to the race as “pitting coastal elites against Kansans.” 

Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, said he is “very confident” that the Kansas legislature would pass a “total or near-total” abortion ban if the amendment passed and gave them that ability. 

The problem for abortion rights supporters, he said, is they “still have a lot of work to do to make people aware we’re even having a vote.” 

“The lower the turnout, the better it is for amendment supporters,” he said, but that opponents are “showing a lot more signs of life, particularly since the Supreme Court leak.” 

Pointing to the lack of polling on the amendment, he called the result “very hard to predict.” 

“The people who are very confident about where politics goes from here are probably the people who are being paid to tell you a particular thing,” he said.  

Tags abortion rights Joe Biden Kansas Roe v. Wade

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