On Aug. 2, Kansas will become the first state in the nation to vote on abortion rights via ballot measure since the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health overturned Roe v. Wade in June.
As recent as 2019, Kansas’ state Supreme Court ruled that the state’s constitution guarantees a right to abortion. Now, posing as “reasonable” moderates, anti-abortion extremists in the state are trying to ban abortion through a ballot measure in the upcoming primary election that would change the state constitution to assert there is no guaranteed right to an abortion. This would open the door for the Republican super-majority in the legislature to pass an abortion ban and override a veto from Gov. Laura Kelly (D), and the state court would be unable to block the law.
It doesn’t help that the measure is deliberately written to confuse voters and depress turnout, increasing the chance of passing—a “yes” vote isn’t pro-abortion, but is a “yes” on ending the right to abortion; a “no” vote rejects the constitutional change to end abortion rights.
“This makes it so the challenge is not only to turn out enough people to be actually representative of Kansans views that support [abortion rights], but also to overcome some of the structural obstacles—the confusing language of the ballot measure itself,” Zack Gingrich-Gaylord, communications director of Trust Women, told Jezebel. Trust Women runs abortion clinics in Wichita, Kansas, as well as Oklahoma City. “The fact that it’s on a primary ballot, as opposed to the general election ballot, as well, are both intentional choices to reduce turnout and bolster the other side’s chances of getting this passed.”
The anti-abortion Value Them Both campaign initially tried to posture as taking a middle ground, as if it’s possible to compromise on whether pregnant people deserve rights. The campaign said they merely wanted to adopt “common-sense” abortion “limits,” to rein in the “radical left” and stop Kansas from becoming like “New York” or “California,” rather than totally ban abortion. Of course, Kansas already bans abortion at 22 weeks, and 98 percent of its counties lack an abortion provider.
But by last week, a state senator at a Value Them Both rally unabashedly promised cheering crowds that if the ballot measure won, he would move to ban abortion “with my goal of life starting at conception.” In other words, establish the anti-abortion movement’s endgame of fetal personhood, in which women and pregnant people are secondary to fetuses, and miscarriage and abortion are homicide.
According to Gingrich-Gaylord, an abortion ban in Kansas could virtually end abortion access in the Midwest and plunge abortion access for a large swath of the country into chaos. In the last year since Texas’ near-total abortion ban S.B. 8, before Roe was overturned, Trust Women in Kansas has already “become a majority out-of-state provider,” primarily serving traveling patients. Post-Roe, three out of four of Kansas’ neighboring states—Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Missouri—all immediately banned or moved to ban abortion.
Bloomberg estimated that Kansas could see a “quadrupling” of abortion patients. Dr. Christina Bourne, the medical director of Trust Women, recounted to FiveThirtyEight that the day Roe was overturned, “people in Mississippi and Louisiana were literally calling us from the waiting rooms of abortion clinics there, saying their appointment had just been canceled and could we fit them in.”
“This clinic system in this region is already not as robust as it should be for the number of people who need it,” Gingrich-Gaylord said. Even without an abortion ban in place, depending where you live in Kansas, “to get an abortion in Kansas, you’d still have to drive a few hours to Wichita.” Recently, the clinic received around 1,000 calls in one day. “We cannot answer that many phone calls. But no matter what we do, we very much feel the impact of the people who we cannot see. That’s only going to get worse if Kansas goes dark.”
Despite the deliberately confusing language of the ballot measure and Value Them Both’s terrifying private promise to ban all abortion, Gingrich-Gaylord says he’s “optimistic,” though the race will be close. This year, Kansans for Constitutional Freedom—the coalition supporting abortion rights—has raised $6.5 million to Value Them Both’s $4.7 million; 94 percent of Kansas Democratic voters compared with 78 percent of Republicans say the ballot measure has “increased the importance of voting in this upcoming election.”
FiveThirtyEight’s polling this week showed the race was in a dead heat, with 47 percent support for yes compared with 43 percent for no. “We’ve been seeing a lot of really wonderful grassroots support, especially in Wichita, but I see across the state, a lot of people really finding ways to get galvanized for the vote no side,” Gingrich-Gaylord said.
In the coming weeks, all eyes will be on Kansas, as states across the nation prepare to vote on their own abortion-related ballot measures in the coming months: California and Vermont are voting to codify abortion rights, while Kentucky and Montana are considering similar measures to Kansas’—Montana’s “Medical Care Requirements for Born-Alive Infants Measure” would establish a $50,000 fine and possible 20-year prison sentence for those who provide certain abortions.
As experts and advocates have long predicted, the overturning of Roe has upended both abortion access and essentially all pregnancy-related care in the health system. States’ trigger laws are threatening pregnant people’s lives and banning care without exceptions—pending the results of Aug. 2, Kansas could become one of them.
Nonetheless, abortion access has long been in a state of emergency. Gingrich-Gaylord says voting “no” on the Value Them Both Amendment is not making circumstances more dire than they already are. “It’s been stunning to see that the response to this manufactured health care crisis by many states has been to double down on the crisis, as opposed to doing something to take care of their own constituents,” he said. “This idea that traveling hours, hundreds of miles, isn’t the solution—really, it’s that we need local access to abortion care for all people across the region.”