On 2 August, hundreds of thousands of people will head to the polls to vote on a constitutional amendment that could decide the future of abortion laws and access in Kansas.
This vote makes Kansas the first state to hold a public vote on abortion since Roe vs Wade was overturned in late June.
What are the abortion laws in Kansas?
Kansas already has very restricted access to abortion – banned at 22 weeks, banned by telehealth or post, and not covered by State Medicaid or private health insurance. However in 2019, the state Supreme Court ruled that Kansas’ Constitution protects a woman’s access to abortion, meaning it can’t be fully banned. Since that ruling, anti-choice activists have been trying to amend the Constitution, and finally succeeded in getting it onto the ballot of the midterm primary this summer. If the anti-choice “Yes” campaign wins, it likely will be just a matter of months before Kansas joins its neighbouring states in banning abortion entirely.
“Even though the amendment doesn’t explicitly ban abortion, everyone here knows that, if it were to pass, the legislature is going to ban abortions immediately in January,” says Don Haider-Markel, a professor of Political Science at the University of Kansas. “There’s just no question about it.”
The history of abortions in Kansas
Abortion has a long and violent history in Kansas politics. Many remember the 2009 fatal shooting of Dr George Tiller, medical director of one of just a few abortion clinics in the country that offered late-term abortions, by an anti-abortion extremist. His murder came after over 30 years of protests and attacks, both on his Wichita clinic, which was the centre of the famous ‘Summer of Mercy’ protests and was firebombed in 1986, and on his person: being shot in both arms, long legal battles and a media furore that branded him “Tiller the baby killer.”
And it remains one of the most divisive issues in Kansas politics. In the most recent Kansas Speaks Survey, conducted in Autumn 2021, 31% said they think abortion is murder, versus 40% who don’t. However, surprising many, 60% said they do not believe abortion should be outright illegal, without exceptions for rape, incest or a threat to the woman’s life.
And the issue divides pretty clearly down party lines. Polling conducted by the University of Chicago with Fox News in 2018 segmented respondents by who they voted for in the 2018 Kansas governor race.
Among people who voted for the far-right Kris Kobach, over 80% said abortion was one of the top issues facing the county, and two-thirds believe it should be illegal in most or all cases. Among those who voted for the moderate Democrat Laura Kelly, 70% said abortion should be legal in most or all cases.
Kansas' urban-rural divide
This conservative-liberal split in Kansas is a clear example of the urban-rural political divide that is seen across the US and many other countries. In Johnson County, which covers the Southern suburbs of Kansas and is the largest county in the state with a population of over 600,000 people, Biden won 53% of the vote and Kelly won 54% in 2018. In Wyandotte County, which covers central Kansas City and has a population density of 1,093 people per square mile, Biden won 65% of the vote, and Kelly 67%.
In contrast, Kansas has seven counties with a population of fewer than 2,000, all of which voted over 60% for Kobach and over 80% for Trump. In Wallace County, where population density is less than two people per square mile, only 44 people (5.4% of votes) voted for Biden in 2020.
Though these maps may look like a sea of red, the huge variation in population means that the overall vote is fairly evenly split. In the 2020 presidential race, Trump won the state overall with 56% of the votes, while in the 2018 Governor race, Democrat Laura Kelly beat her far-right opponent Kris Kobach with 48% of the overall vote, compared with his 43%. Those campaigning on the abortion vote anticipate it will also be nail-bitingly close.
“The League of Women Voters of the United States have had the same position on reproductive rights since 1983: that we believe in the constitutional right of privacy, and so the individual should be able to make their own reproductive choice, and in 1983 that didn’t seem like a risky position,” says Jacqueline Lightcap, co-president of League of Women Voters of Kansas, a non-partisan organisation that campaigns for a fair democracy. “Abortion wasn’t so tied up to the identity of a political party then, but now we find ourselves in a very different space.”
[Read more: Where in the US has already banned abortion?]
Lightcap says she hopes Kansans will be able to see beyond the partisanship to understand this vote as a matter of individual choice, something many feel very strongly about. The Kansas Speaks 2021 survey found that over half of Kansans believe the government should not place restrictions on the circumstances under which women can get abortions, and 60% think women should make their own choice on abortion, not the government.
“I think if Kansans would really look at this amendment, and really consider what it is asking – it is asking us to give over authority to a government body which in general, Kansans are not in favour of,” Lightcap says. “Kansans of both stripes have a strong independent streak, we don't want anybody telling us what to do.”
The campaign has been hugely politicised, with misleading advertising on both sides, says Haider-Markel, but the politics started well before the ballot was announced. The anti-choice movement that proposed the amendment pushed to have it on the primary ballot in August rather than the midterm election in November, knowing that there would be a lower turnout for the low-stake primary.
But the numbers are showing the opposite: according to Vote.org, the day Roe vs Wade was overturned saw the number of voter registrations in Kansas increase more than tenfold compared with a week earlier.
Between 16 July and 21 July, there had already been over 26,500 advance votes cast in Johnson County, according to the election office, more than was cast in the entire advance voting period in the 2018 primary. And it’s areas like Johnson County, with its urban/suburban population, that will be crucial to the outcome of this vote, just like in the governor and presidential races.
“If you look at counties like Johnson County, or even Sedgwick County, which covers Wichita, etcetera, there you have moderate Republicans or those who consider themselves more independent, and can be swayed in cases like Laura Kelly over Kris Kobach,” says Haider-Markel. “Here you can see that pattern emerging again, where moderates, especially suburban women, will choose to maintain the status quo and keep access to abortion."
And this power is only growing, as cities expand and sprawl out into suburbs and suburban towns, while rural communities shrink. In the past decade, over 80% of Kansas’ counties have actually seen their populations decrease, almost all of them small, rural, Conservative-voting areas. Meanwhile, Biden-voting Johnson County and Douglas County (which includes college town Lawrence) have both grown by over 10% in the past decade.
But what does this vote mean down the line, for the abortion debate in Kansas, and for the midterms in November? Haider-Markel says if the “yes” vote wins this ballot, and the state moves towards an abortion ban, it’s likely to mobilise the moderate and left-leaning voters at the midterms, who win likely campaign on exemptions for abortions in cases of rape or the life of the mother. But if the amendment doesn’t pass, the anti-choice efforts will re-double, while you’re unlikely to see Democrats campaigning for any abortion protections. In fact, they may choose not to campaign on it all.
Abortion laws across the US
And, of course, this issue is hardly limited to Kansas. Come November, four more states will have abortion-related measures on the ballot: in Kentucky and Montana these measures, if passed, will restrict abortion, while measures in California and Vermont aim to protect the right to abortion.
The last time these many abortion-related ballot measures were seen in one year in the US was 1986, when Arkansas, Massachusetts, Oregon and Rhode Island all voted on pro-life-baced ballot measures, which all failed. There are already numerous ballot measures on abortion being proposed across the country over the next two years, and the results in Kansas are likely to influence these campaigns by both sides of the issue.