LAWRENCE, Kan. – Kansas voters will decide next year whether the state’s constitution protects abortion rights under a ballot measure approved by the state Senate on Thursday.
If approved by voters, the measure – known by its supporters as “Value Them Both” – would amend the state’s constitution to say there is no right to abortion and leave the power to regulate the procedure to the legislature, currently a Republican-leaning body that in recent years has tightened restrictions on abortions.
Kansas would join four other states that have approved similar constitutional amendments since 2014, along with others that have enacted abortion restrictions. The measures could put the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court and its new conservative majority, offering an opportunity to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in 1973.
On Thursday, the South Carolina Senate passed a bill outlawing most abortions. The measure would prohibit an abortion if a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat unless the mother’s life is in danger. The legislation also is expected to pass in the House.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden on Thursday announced several steps intended to expand access to health care as well as to reverse Trump administration policies that restricted access to abortion both in the United States and overseas. Biden said the aim of both actions was to “undo the damage [former president Donald] Trump has done.”
Kansas’s ballot measure would effectively overturn a landmark 2019 decision by the state’s Supreme Court, which ruled that the constitution fundamentally protects abortion rights and declared that Kansans have broad rights to control what happens to their own bodies regardless of federal court decisions.
Republican state senators argued Thursday that the ballot measure was not an outright ban on abortion, but a way to protect what they termed as reasonable safeguards passed before the state high court’s 2019 decision.
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly has opposed the constitutional amendment, which state Sen. Dinah Sykes, a Democrat, called dangerous, unnecessary and “the most extreme measure” ever considered by the body. Kelly has argued that it could damage the state’s post-pandemic economic recovery efforts and hurt its attempt to recruit businesses and new residents.
“I’ve always believed that every woman’s reproductive decisions should be left to her, her family, and her physician,” Kelly said in a Jan. 22 statement. “While I know others do not share my belief, I don’t think those supporting this amendment are aware of the consequences it will have for the state of Kansas and our reputation.”
The move sets up what will be a heated 2022 election season in a state long at the center of the abortion debate. Kansas was once seen as one of the least-restrictive in the country, prompting the “Summer of Mercy” antiabortion protests in 1991. In 2009, George Tiller, one of the country’s few third-trimester abortion providers, was assassinated in Wichita by an antiabortion extremist.
In a 6-to-1 ruling, the Kansas Supreme Court – a panel that included four judges appointed by former Democratic governor Kathleen Sebelius, who later served as health and human services secretary in the Obama administration – blocked a 2015 law that banned a second-trimester abortion procedure.
Antiabortion activists have long argued that ruling would negatively affect previous legislative restrictions in Kansas, including measures that require women undergo an ultrasound and receive counseling before an abortion, and that require parental consent before a minor can have an abortion.
“This shows legislators are listening to the people,” said Jeanne Gawdun, director of government relations for the antiabortion group Kansans for Life. “This gives them the right to vote to protect the reasonable regulations passed with bipartisan majorities over the last 25-plus years.”
Four states – Tennessee, West Virginia, Louisiana and Alabama – have already passed constitutional amendments declaring that their state constitutions do not protect the right to abortion or allow use of public funds for abortion, according to a tally by the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights research group.
Those state constitutional amendments have led to tighter restrictions in those states, according to Elizabeth Nash, the institute’s lead policy analyst. After Alabama approved its constitutional amendment in 2018, its governor signed a total abortion ban in 2019 that is being challenged in federal court. Since its amendment in 2014, Tennessee has instituted mandatory counseling, a 48-hour waiting period and other clinic regulations, Nash said.
“The big picture is that this is part of the effort to undermine abortion rights nationally,” Nash said. “If abortion rights are diminished at the federal level, that opens up the door for bans at the state level. These kinds of ballot initiatives have the potential to be increasingly damaging for abortion rights and access to these services.”
Julie Burkhart, founder and chief executive of Trust Women, which has reproductive health clinics in Wichita and Oklahoma, said that it was misleading to say that the ballot measure was not a ban on abortion, because “it absolutely is.”
“It will allow to the legislature to put burdensome, punitive laws into place that would further penalize people who are trying to access abortion care,” she said.