The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Kansas voters sent a message. Will Congress listen?

Supporters and opponents of abortion rights near a polling place in Overland Park, Kan., on Aug. 1. (Christopher Smith For The Washington Post)
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The message sent by voters in Kansas on Tuesday was loud and clear. Rejecting a ballot measure that would have allowed the Republican-controlled legislature to tighten abortion restrictions or even ban the procedure outright, voters in one of the most conservative states in the country demonstrated their support for reproductive rights. Let’s hope Congress takes a cue and embeds access to abortion in federal law.

The Kansas vote on an amendment that would have removed the right to an abortion from the state constitution was the first test of voter sentiment since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June overturning Roe v. Wade. The results could not have been more stunning. Despite Republicans far outnumbering Democrats, and despite the state’s ties to the antiabortion movement, voters decided overwhelmingly to retain the constitutional protections. Making the outcome all the more astonishing, as The Post’s James Hohmann observed, were the steps Republicans had taken to tilt the result, such as scheduling the vote for an August primary with the expectation independents wouldn’t turn out. The language of the ballot question was purposely confusing, and the day before the vote, a Republican-aligned firm intentionally sent out misleading text messages.

Jason Willick

counterpointThe democratic lessons of Kansas’s pro-choice upset

That Kansans saw through the political gamesmanship was rightly celebrated. “It’s just amazing. It’s breathtaking that women’s voices were heard and [that] we care about women’s health,” Kansas state Sen. Dinah Sykes (D) said when the result was announced. Still, weighing against elation over the surprise victory is the reality that the loss of access to abortions has created untold hardship and placed in jeopardy the health of those who can get pregnant across the country. At least 10 states have banned the medical procedure. Another four states prohibit it at six weeks of pregnancy, and more states are expected to enact bans in the coming weeks. Some measures are so extreme as to not provide for exceptions in cases of rape or incest or even when a pregnant person’s life or health is endangered. The same day of the Kansas vote, the Justice Department filed its first suit on abortion access, arguing that Idaho’s near-total ban on abortion violates federal law requiring doctors to provide medical care when a person’s life or health is at stake.

It’s encouraging that the Justice Department is aggressive in its effort to protect women’s lives, but its lawsuit, if successful, would affect a relatively small number of cases. More action is needed to undo the damage caused by the court’s overturning of Roe. Congress, as President Biden said in response to the Kansas vote, needs to restore Roe’s protections as federal law. Democrats in May tried to advance a sweeping bill that would have invalidated nearly all abortion restrictions nationwide, but it didn’t get the necessary 60 votes; Republicans and Democrat Joe Manchin III of West Virginia voted against it.

Now, though, a bipartisan group of senators — led by Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) — has introduced a more modest measure that would codify federal abortion protections formerly provided by Roe. It would invalidate state abortion bans and the toughest abortion restrictions. But it has been assailed by abortion rights advocates as not going far enough and is given little chance of getting the 10 Republican votes needed to overcome a filibuster. We urge Democrats to get behind this bipartisan effort. And Republicans should ask themselves if they want to face voters in three months having opposed abortions rights that — as was demonstrated in Kansas — are strongly supported by most Americans.