A Republican-leaning state in America’s socially conservative heartland recently shocked both sides of the long-running battle over abortion, calling into question the conventional wisdom about how and where the procedure might be restricted or banned.
Voters in Kansas cast ballots last week on a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution that would have eliminated an existing right to abortion. The amendment was expected to pass handily in a state no Democratic presidential contender has won in nearly 60 years and where Donald Trump beat Joe Biden by 15 percentage points in the 2020 election.
Voters rejected the ballot measure, preserving abortion rights.
“The consensus was that Republicans in Kansas were going to ban abortion like in many other conservative states,” University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock told VOA. “But we got a big surprise. Kansas voted to uphold abortion protections and the only way to explain it is that the vote exposed a rift. There seems to be a difference between what Republican politicians want and what voters – including some Republican voters – want.”
When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling in June, it gave each U.S. state the ability to decide whether to allow or ban abortion.
Until last week, initial results seemed to follow states’ partisan leanings, with Republican-controlled states moving to outlaw abortions and Democrat-led states preserving and, in some cases, moving to bolster abortion protections.
For example, just days after the Kansas vote, lawmakers in another conservative breadbasket state, Indiana, became the first in the post-Roe era to pass a law banning most abortions. Before the Supreme Court’s June ruling, several Republican-led state legislatures had passed so-called “trigger laws” that restricted or ended access to the procedure once Roe was overturned.
“The difference between Kansas and the states like Indiana,” Bullock said, “is that in Indiana politicians in the legislature voted on the proposed laws, while in Kansas, the public got to vote directly. It turns out that distinction makes a big difference.”
And the Kansas vote was decisive, defeating the anti-abortion-rights amendment 59% to 41%.
While the result will impact the lives of women and families across the Sunflower State, Bullock believes the shock waves could be far reaching.
“Politicians and activists from around the country are watching and analyzing what happened in Kansas,” he said, “and you might see both sides employing the lessons they’re learning when the fight comes to their own states.”
Rift among Republicans
Ann Mah, a Democratic member of the Kansas State Board of Education, remembers the moment she first thought abortion rights backers could win the amendment battle.
“You have these Republican politicians who are always moving to the right to appeal to the loudest members of their base so they can win their primary,” she told VOA, “But I was getting the sense some conservative voters were becoming uneasy with the amount these proposed abortion policies were reaching into their private lives.”
One day as the vote neared, Mah spoke with a neighbor she described as “ultra-conservative.”
“We don’t agree on hardly anything, me and this person,” she said, “but he came to my house and asked for a ‘Vote No’ yard sign because he didn’t support the amendment. That’s when I knew we had a chance.”
Not everyone believes what happened in Kansas will carry over to other states, however.
“I’m not from Kansas or Indiana so I can’t speak to what people do in those states,” said Sarah Zagorski, communications director at Louisiana Right to Life, an anti-abortion-rights advocacy organization, “but I can say that one negative result in a state isn’t necessarily indicative of how the country feels about abortion. For pro-life people here in Louisiana, they just won’t be voting for radical abortion extremists and their policies.”
But former Louisiana state Representative Melissa Flournoy, a Democrat, believes the reality and consequences of the Supreme Court’s abortion decision are only just now registering for many.
Flournoy pointed to a recent case that made national headlines in which a child victim of rape had to be taken to another state in order to terminate a pregnancy.
“We’re confronted with this story about a 10-year-old girl who was raped, became pregnant, and was about to be denied an abortion – that’s shocking to most of America,” Flournoy told VOA. “It’s like, ‘Yes, we really are outlawing abortion in all circumstances.’ It’s disorienting, and the implications are coming into focus, even among some voters who consider themselves pro-life.”
An Ipsos/USA Today poll released Wednesday found 54% of respondents would vote to keep or make abortion legal in their state, with 28% indicating they would vote against abortion-rights measures.
While it’s more common for legislatures to handle these matters, voters are increasingly clamoring for a direct say. In Republican-controlled South Dakota, for example, the Kansas vote has spawned an effort to pursue a statewide referendum on reestablishing abortion rights in the state.
Additionally, this November, voters in California, Kentucky, Montana and Vermont will have the opportunity to weigh in on abortion rights via the ballot box, while plans are being finalized to give residents in Colorado and Michigan that same opportunity.
In fact, according to the Ipsos/USA Today poll, 70% of Americans say they want to vote on abortion via state ballots, including 73% of Democrats, 77% of Republicans and 67% of independents.
“Opinion on reproductive choice isn’t only based on party lines,” said Cynthia Lash, chair of the Osage County Democratic Central Committee in Kansas, speaking with VOA. “In our state, several nonpartisan groups formed solely to defeat the amendment. They canvassed, they texted voters in all counties regardless of party affiliation, they developed yard signs, they held rallies — they were much more active than traditional campaigns in reaching out to everyone.”
Osage County is deeply Republican, but even there, 56% of voters opposed the abortion-rights amendment last week.
“In our small, rural county, only 17% of registered voters are Democrats,” Lash said. “Even in the unlikely case that every Democrat and unaffiliated voter voted against the amendment, that means 31% of Republican voters cast a ballot against the amendment as well. That’s how unpopular it was.”
Not all anti-abortion activists, however, are convinced a vote against the amendment was a vote against restricting abortions.
“In Kansas, voters rejected an amendment that allows the legislature to limit or allow abortions as those politicians see fit,” said Laura Knight, president of Pro-Life Mississippi. “Maybe those voters wanted a total ban of abortion. Maybe they felt the amendment wasn’t strong enough. We don’t know.”
Some in the Republican Party worry they are pushing too far in banning abortion, months before midterm elections that will determine control of the U.S. Congress. This past Sunday, on NBC’s Meet the Press, Representative Nancy Mace of South Carolina compared the impact of anti-abortion initiatives to the fictional portrayal of an America in which women have no rights in a popular U.S. television series.
“It will be an issue in November if we’re not moderating ourselves. ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ is not supposed to be a road map,” Mace said.
Others are urging anti-abortion officeholders to stay true to their beliefs.
“Government officials are elected to vote their conscience, not to check in with the public on everything,” Tara Wicker, who leads Louisiana Black Advocates for Life, told VOA. “Children who are born of rape or incest are still innocent children and we should be protecting them, regardless of how popular that decision is among a subset of voters.”
Bullock from the University of Georgia sees warning signs for advocates of abortion measures who ignore the will of voters.
“Both sides have things they can learn from what we're seeing in states like Indiana and Kansas,” he said, “and for Republicans, the warning is they seem to be pushing beyond what their voters want. It’s a lesson they’ve been confronted with before, but they don’t seem to be learning it.”
At a time of economic uncertainty in America, the degree to which abortion could determine election outcomes remains to be seen.
A recent poll in the swing state of Nevada by The Nevada Independent, a news website, and OH Predictive Insights, a market research company, showed abortion laws were the second most powerful issue for respondents – behind only the economy. But the gap between the two remained substantial (40% for the economy and 17% for abortion laws).
“Inflation and the economy as a whole is still front-of-mind for most Americans, but that doesn’t mean the abortion debate can’t impact elections this November,” Bullock said. “This is going to be a big issue for suburban white women, many of whom typically vote Republican. If 50,000 here or 100,000 there change their mind in especially tight districts or states, that's enough to flip a result or two, and potentially even [determine] control of the [U.S.] Senate.”