Following the Supreme Court’s June 24 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and leave the question of abortion legality to the states, the eyes of the nation turn to the first state that will put the question of abortion rights to a statewide vote: Kansas. On August 2, as Kansans vote in the primary elections, they will decide in a ballot measure whether or not to amend the state constitution to declare that there is no constitutional right to an abortion in Kansas. This initiative of the Republican-dominated legislature comes after the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that the state constitution currently does guarantee the right to an abortion.
Kansas is home to nearly 1.5 million women whose bodily autonomy is on the line. Should the state constitution be amended to decline to protect abortion rights, the legislature, held by a Republican supermajority, would immediately set to work to pass legislation that would criminalize abortion. The amendment includes no exception for cases of rape or incest, so it is likely that legislation created by Kansas Republicans would also not include any such provision either.
Currently, people in nearby states look to Kansas for their reproductive healthcare needs, as Oklahoma and Missouri have already outlawed abortion since the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Kansas could be a safe haven for those seeking an abortion in a region where Republican state leaders are dismantling abortion rights. Even before Roe was struck down, heavy restrictions in Missouri had reduced the number of abortion providers in the state to one: a Planned Parenthood in St. Louis, in the far eastern side of the state. People needing an abortion in Kansas City, Missouri, have had to travel across the Kansas border to the suburb of Overland Park to another Planned Parenthood for the procedure. Now this vital resource for Kansas Citians on both sides of the state line is under threat.
The Kansas amendment to be voted on Aug. 2 is hypocritically titled by its Republican authors the “Value Them Both Amendment,” which is also the name of the PAC supporting it and the slogan used in the vote yes campaign, with “both” referring to women and children. One can only wonder why, if the Republican Party so values women, they wish to deprive them of reproductive agency and see them carrying pregnancies against their will. And if they so value children, why don’t they start caring about the ones who are already born and in dire need of essentials like baby formula? The point of the campaign is, of course, not to support women and children, but to exert control over women and carry out the ultra-right project the right has been promoting for decades.
In the recent abortion discussion, conservatives love to speak in terms of “returning power to the states” and “reserving authority to the people” as though they are merely allowing democracy to happen, and not waging a deliberate attack on reproductive rights. The language of the Kansas ballot measure is nefariously framed in this way so as to portray the amendment as benign and confuse those voters who might not already know that “yes” is to restrict abortion access and “no” is to protect abortion access. The ballot will read:
“A vote for the Value Them Both Amendment would affirm there is no Kansas constitutional right to abortion or to require the government funding of abortion, and would reserve to the people of Kansas, through their elected state legislators, the right to pass laws to regulate abortion.”
“A vote against the Value Them Both Amendment would make no changes to the constitution of the state of Kansas, and could restrict the people, through their elected state legislators, from regulating abortion by leaving in place the recently recognized right to abortion.”
Notice how the “yes” option is worded more positively, including word choice like “affirm” and “reserve to the people” while the “no” option uses the phrase “restrict the people.” The “yes” option offers to “regulate abortion,” an agreeable-sounding euphemism that would really mean outlawing abortion. The Republican legislature chose this language to push the uninformed voter into believing “yes” is the more sensible choice. This is why it is so important to inform voters what a vote for and a vote against actually mean.
Kansas has a storied history of being a battleground state for crucial popular struggles. Before the Civil War, pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions competed for political influence at the state and national level. As Kansas was becoming a state in the 1850s, residents fought to decide if it would become a free state or a slave state, giving the winning side two more senators in Washington, which would tip the scales of the legality of slavery across the country. From the neighboring slave state of Missouri came thousands of pro-slavery voters, while most Kansans were small, independent farmers who voted to remain a free state. Hundreds died as the two sides engaged in armed skirmishes and massacres in attempts to drive the other out of Kansas. The anti-slavery side had the leadership of legendary abolitionist guerrilla John Brown, who killed five slavers after they sacked the town of Lawrence. Several elections were held and disputed on various state constitutions until finally one stuck that made it illegal to own enslaved people in Kansas.
The violence over slavery in Kansas set the stage for the Civil War, and now again today Kansas may be a prelude to what is to come across the country. A victory for the anti-choice right could encourage them to launch similar ballot initiatives in other states. Currently, California, Kentucky, Montana, and Vermont all have ballot measures regarding abortion to be voted on by the states’ populations in the November 8 elections, while Arizona, Colorado and Michigan may have such a ballot initiative in the general elections as well. It is no accident that Kansas is having its vote on abortion in the primary elections and not the general elections; the primaries always have lower turnout than the general election, which the Republicans are hoping will work in their favor. It is crucial that they be stopped now in Kansas.
Kansans for Constitutional Freedom is a coalition leading the campaign to defend reproductive rights in Kansas and make sure this amendment does not pass. Their website kansansforfreedom.com lists important facts to inform and counter the disinformation of the amendment proponents. The Party for Socialism and Liberation of Kansas and Missouri is mobilizing to join the critical statewide fight for safe, legal abortion access for Kansans. If you have a friend or relative in Kansas, let them know how important this vote is. Remind them that there is an election August 2 and that the deadline to register is July 12. All registered voters, regardless of party affiliation, are eligible to vote on the ballot measure. If you live in Kansas, join us in going to the polls August 2 and VOTE “NO” on this egregious attempt to curtail women’s rights.
Bennett Nowotny is a PSL member in Prairie Village, Kansas.