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Why the Defense of Abortion in Kansas Is So Powerful

TOPEKA, Kan. — Lines of Kansas voters, resolute in the August sun and 100-degree heat, stretched beyond the doors of polling sites and wrapped around buildings on Tuesday to cast ballots in a primary election. A few suffered heat exhaustion. Firefighters passed out bottles of water.

When polls closed at 7 p.m. Central time, many were still in line and legally entitled to get their turn. The Wichita Eagle reported that one Wichita woman cast the final vote at her polling site at 9:45 p.m. after waiting in line for nearly three hours. Poll workers, understaffed amid the likely record turnout, worked brutally long hours for democracy.

This inspired showing responded to a clear threat against reproductive rights. In the first state vote on abortion following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, Kansans unequivocally batted down the state legislature’s proposed amendment to remove the right to an abortion from the state Constitution.

These citizens of the Plains put me in mind of the row of century-old cedar trees, planted close together so that their branches interlocked, that shielded my family’s small farm from powerful winds. As such “shelter belts” prevent soil erosion across the region, Kansas voters — underestimated by shocked liberals across the country — stood against the erosion of personal freedom.

Passage of the amendment would have made way for the conservative state legislature to further limit or completely ban abortion, threatening the health, bodily autonomy and survival of not just pregnant Kansans but pregnant people who travel to the state for otherwise inaccessible care. Neighboring Missouri and Oklahoma, as well as Texas and other nearby states, have banned or severely restricted abortion. A spokesman for Trust Women, an abortion clinic in Wichita, reported a 60 percent increase in out-of-state patients over the past year and a doubling of overall patient volume since last year.

In a state where registered Republicans far outnumber Democrats, the results reveal that conservative politicians bent on controlling women and pregnant people with draconian abortion bans are out of step with their electorates, a majority of whom are capable of nuance often concealed by our two-party system.

This is not news to many red-state moderates and progressives, who live with excruciating awareness of the gulf between their decent communities and the far-right extremists gerrymandering, voter-suppressing and dark-moneying their way into state and local office. Too often, election results say more about the conditions of the franchise — who manages to access it, and what information or misinformation they receive along the way — than they do about the character of a place.

Not so this time, even as anti-abortion lawmakers and their supporters tried every trick. They placed a major voter referendum on a primary election ballot, in order to sneak it through amid expected low voter awareness and turnout. They wanted to favor conservative votes in a state where Democrats often have little to vote on during a midterm primary and therefore stay home. To boot, some 30 percent of Kansas voters are unaffiliated and so unable to vote for candidates in primary elections. Independents could vote on the abortion measure but might not have known.

The anti-abortion side used confusing language in the amendment, which suggested a yes vote would ban taxpayer funding of abortions — a ban that already exists — or allow for laws protecting victims of rape and incest, who already have legal access to abortion. They insisted they had no designs on passing a total ban on abortion, but The Kansas Reflector obtained audio from a meeting in which a state senator and amendment advocate promised to attempt to pass just such a ban. On top of that, the day before the election, Kansas voters received deceptive texts to vote yes to preserve “choice,” confusing untold numbers of voters.

With this atmosphere in mind, alongside polls that were way off-target, cynical pundits and hopeful abortion rights supporters alike were stunned by the extent of the amendment’s failure — a nearly 18-percentage-point margin, with 95 percent of votes tallied — in an initiative some predicted would require days or even weeks of counting and recounting in order to call.

Even more striking, perhaps, is who helped ensure that it failed — say, Osage County, population about 15,700, which has backed the Republican candidate in all presidential elections after 1964. Donald Trump won 71 percent of the 2020 vote there. Yesterday, 56 percent of its voters rejected the amendment, with 93 percent of votes reported.

Despite red-and-blue maps suggesting that the political fault line of our era runs between urban and rural areas, much of the countryside joined cities like Wichita and Kansas City in voting down the amendment. Fourteen Kansas counties that went for Mr. Trump in the 2020 presidential election, as well as all five that went for Joe Biden, saw majority votes against the amendment. Even in counties where most voted yes, sizable numbers voted no.

Kansas’ existing abortion regulations will remain unchanged, at least for now. Kansas requires a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion and permission from parents or a judge for minors seeking the procedure. Providers must share language with patients designed to discourage them from getting an abortion. After 22 weeks of pregnancy, abortion is legal only to protect the woman’s life or when her health is severely compromised.

Republican lawmakers’ attempts to ban second-trimester abortions resulted in a 2019 Kansas Supreme Court ruling of 6-1 that the state Constitution guarantees the “right of personal autonomy,” including the freedom to decide whether to continue a pregnancy. The decision, in effect, closed the door on new state legislation curbing or ending abortion rights without first altering the Constitution.

Had they succeeded in doing so with the voter initiative on Tuesday, the state’s Democratic governor, Laura Kelly, who is up for re-election this fall, no doubt would have vetoed subsequent anti-abortion legislation. But the legislature’s conservative supermajority would most likely have overridden a veto.

Instead, Kansas remains a beacon of liberty within the region.

The state has been such a beacon before. In 1861, Kansas established itself as a free state — provoking murderous raids by pro-slavery factions and helping to incite the Civil War. A few years later, in 1867, Kansas held the first voter referendum on women’s suffrage in the United States, also seeking to eliminate the word “white” from voter qualifications in the state Constitution three years before the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Both ballot measures failed, but Kansas voters would grant women the full right to vote in 1912, well ahead of the 19th Amendment.

Kansas has a history of relative reproductive freedom, too, and related turmoil. The Wichita clinic of George Tiller, one of the nation’s few physicians who performed rare third-trimester abortions, was pipe-bombed in 1986. Anti-abortion zealots from across the country descended on Dr. Tiller’s clinic with disruptive mass protests during the summer of 1991. He survived being shot by an anti-abortion fanatic in 1993. In 2009, he was murdered inside his Wichita church.

The clinic where Dr. Tiller worked is now called Trust Women, a stalwart in the national movement for reproductive rights. In this latest struggle, the staff of Trust Women spoke out against the amendment alongside other Kansas voices, including doctors, Christian ministers, small businesses across the state, the state native Janelle Monáe and two Catholic nuns. Legions of volunteer phone-bankers and door-knockers prompted voter action and made clear what was at stake.

But Kansans didn’t do it alone. Support — donations, text messages of solidarity, a letter of encouragement from Gloria Steinem — came from far and wide, boosting the resources and morale of a place often stereotyped as a conservative monolith and presumed a pointless investment for Democratic campaigns.

One dismal aspect of our political climate is the ease with which many liberals and progressives dismiss and disdain whole states and regions — as though every Kentucky flood victim voted for Mitch McConnell, as though ideology should be a litmus test for assistance amid acute suffering, as though such places are undeserving charity cases rather than rural landscapes from which resources are extracted to make possible the lives of urban dwellers who sit in judgment.

Yet, somehow again with Tuesday’s vote in Kansas, not this time. In many ways, across state and even party lines, we did it together.

There is no other way.

All reasonable Americans must plant ourselves in a long row and lock arms against the terrible wind from the far right. As we brace together for this post-Roe season, take heart: In the first battle, Kansas held the line.

Sarah Smarsh is the author of “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.”

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