OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — In a major victory for abortion rights, Kansas voters on Tuesday rejected an effort to strip away their state’s abortion protections, sending a decisive message about the issue’s popularity in the first political test since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.
The question presented to voters here was whether abortion protections should be stripped from the state constitution. A “yes” vote would allow Kansas’s Republican-led legislature to pass future limits on abortion — or ban it altogether — in its coming session in January. A “no” vote would leave those protections in place.
With 90 percent of the vote counted, 60 percent of voters wanted to maintain those abortion protections compared with 40 percent who wanted to remove them from the state constitution. Turnout for Tuesday’s primary election far exceeded other contests in recent years, with around 900,000 Kansans voting, according to an Associated Press estimate. That is nearly twice as many as the 473,438 who turned out in the 2018 primary election.
Abortion rights advocates pointed to their resounding win here as evidence that Americans are angry about the efforts to roll back women’s rights.
“At a time when reproductive freedom is under unprecedented threat across the country, Kansans said loud and clear at the ballot box: ‘We’ve had enough’,” NARAL Pro-Choice America President Mini Timmaraju said in a statement. “In the heartland of the United States, protecting abortion access is galvanizing voters like never before.”
The activists on the ground in Kansas, who had knocked on doors in the sweltering heat and written thousands of get-out-the-vote postcards, wept and cheered as they learned they had defeated the ballot referendum.
“We did it, we did it, I can’t believe it,” said Cassie Woolworth, 57, an Olathe resident, business analyst and volunteer, moving through a crowded hotel ballroom in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park where abortion rights supporters were gathered to watch the results late Tuesday.
Rachel Sweet, the campaign director for the Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, told the crowd that the vote was “truly an historic day for Kansas and an historic day for America” to cheers.
“Kansans have spoken loud and clear: We will not tolerate extreme bans on abortion in our state,” Sweet said.
The Value Them Both coalition, which lead the antiabortion outreach in the state, called the outcome a “temporary setback” in a statement on Twitter.
“Our dedicated fight to value women and babies is far from over,” the group’s statement said, promising “we will be back.”
Earlier Tuesday, Justice Ellis, 20, and her sister, Jordan Angermuller, 24, were among those “passionately” voting in favor of abortion rights. The sisters, who voted at a church in Lawrence, Kan., said they believe strongly in a woman’s right to choose after watching the struggles of their own mom, who had Jordan at age 17 as a single mom and later became a nurse.
“She started us on birth control early,” said Angermuller, who works as a server in a restaurant. “Just because she had me when she was very young doesn’t mean we think somebody should not have the option. They always say, ‘Well, if you abort your baby that baby could grow up to cure cancer.’ Well, the same thing is true of a young mom who instead of going to school had the baby.”
The antiabortion movement believes “women are meant to be child-makers,” Angermuller continued. “They want us to be barefoot and pregnant all the time. Not to have aspirations.”
Ellis, who also works in food service, added, “It definitely feels like we’re going back in time.”
Since the Supreme Court ruling, more than a dozen Republican-led states have moved to ban or further restrict abortion. Abortion is currently legal in Kansas in the first 22 weeks of pregnancy, and the state has become a refuge for pregnant patients seeking procedures who are from states with stricter laws, including Texas and Oklahoma.
As voters went to the polls, The Washington Post reported that a Republican-backed group had sent voters intentionally misleading text messages about the ballot language. A political action committee led by Tim Huelskamp, a former hard-line Republican congressman from Kansas, paid a technology company to blast out texts that said, “Voting YES on the Amendment will give women a choice. Vote YES to protect women’s health.”
Voting “yes” actually would have removed abortion protections from the state constitution.
Across the state, signs that read “Vote Yes — Value Them Both” or “Stop the Ban — Vote No” ornament green summer lawns. The airwaves and social media have been inundated with more than $11 million in advertising spending by interest groups this year, according to reports filed with the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.
As the sun beat down and the temperature rose to nearly 100 degrees, a family divided over the abortion issue arrived together to vote at the Lawrence church.
Parents Richard Balden, 71, a warehouse procurer, and Pamela Balden, 61, a financial analyst, voted “yes.”
But their daughter Emily, 24, a logistics coordinator, was a firm “no” vote. “I believe everyone has a right to bodily autonomy. … They don’t force you to donate organs, why should they force you donating your whole body?” she said.
Janice Dearinger, 75, a part-time alcohol and drug counselor in Shawnee, Kan., voted an early “yes” to the ballot referendum at Monticello Library on Friday.
She said that the media and the “Vote No” forces had used scare tactics and unfairly described the proposed amendment as a total ban on abortion; the Value Them Both amendment would have affirmed that there is “no Kansas constitutional right to an abortion” and given the legislature the power to regulate it. Some Kansas legislators have previously said they would sponsor bills saying life begins at conception, had the amendment passed.
“If you read what they’re trying to pass, it’s not about banning abortions altogether, it’s about limiting the ones that don’t need to be done,” Dearinger said. “They’re not saying you can’t have an abortion at all. That’s what the media is wanting you to hear.”
Dearinger, a Baptist, has long been against abortion and attended a vigil to pray for the passage of the amendment Monday evening at a Baptist church sponsored by Value Them Both, the key proponent group.
“God said ‘I knew you before you were born, I formed you in your mother’s womb, I know every hair on your head.’ That’s the reason I say yes,” Dearinger said. “That child belongs to God. He’s given it to that mother, and if that mother don’t want that child, there’s many, many people that does. I don’t think you have a right to do away with a baby for no reason just because you don’t want to be pregnant.
“It’s a very touchy issue, and I get it. Bottom line is — that’s a human being,” Dearinger said.
Value Them Both argued that the amendment wouldn’t mean a total ban on abortion and is necessary to protect laws that were rendered unconstitutional by a 2019 Kansas Supreme Court decision that enshrined abortion rights in the state constitution.
But critics say this position is deceptive, pointing to previous statements from Republican state lawmakers who said they were ready with legislation proposing an all-out ban on the procedure for their legislative session in January. Republicans in the state legislature also placed the abortion measure on the ballot as a special election alongside the previously scheduled primaries, where, traditionally, only party-affiliated voters are allowed to vote. Many of the state’s unaffiliated voters — 29 percent of the electorate — may not be aware they can vote this time, abortion rights activists argued.
Kansas has long been a stronghold of antiabortion activism. During the “Summer of Mercy” antiabortion protests in 1991, thousands of protesters converged on Wichita and were arrested at sit-ins and clinic blockades. In 2009, George Tiller, one of the country’s few third-trimester abortion providers, was assassinated in Wichita by an antiabortion extremist.
Proponents of abortion rights say that the Republican legislature has stacked the deck in its favor, passing tighter restrictions that have made it harder to register new voters, choosing to hold the vote on a primary day rather than during the general election and selecting a ballot question with convoluted wording that has confused many voters.
Abortions have increased 13 percent in Kansas over the past two years, according to statistics from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. That has led to criticism from abortion opponents that the state, led by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, is becoming an abortion “sanctuary” for out-of-staters seeking the procedure. Much of the increase between 2019 and 2020 was driven by short-term coronavirus shutdowns in Oklahoma and Texas, officials said. But preliminary data from 2021 shows that the bulk of the patients were in-state.
However, Trust Women, an abortion clinic in Wichita, has seen a 60 percent increase in its out-of-state patients in the past year, according to Zack Gingrich-Gaylord, the clinic’s communications director, and has doubled its overall patient volume this year over the same time period last year.
Alice Crites and Scott Clement contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Zack Gingrich-Gaylord’s name. The story has been corrected.