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Opinion The Kansas abortion vote sends a powerful message to the Supreme Court

People hug during a Value Them Both watch party after a question involving a constitutional amendment removing abortion protections from the Kansas constitution failed. (Charlie Riedel/AP)
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Quite a jolly tryst it has been for many years: national Republicans embracing the hardcore antiabortion crowd, drunk on the movement’s passion and energy and dollars. What difference did it make? The GOP would never have to suffer consequences for its unpopular stand, because the Supreme Court protected abortion rights.

Oops.

The new majority of radical Republican Supreme Court justices changed everything in June by reversing a half century of precedent and ending federally protected abortion rights. On Tuesday, Republicans got a glimpse of the future when Kansas voters flooded the polls to thwart a ballot measure that would have stripped abortion protections from the state’s constitution.

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Kansas last elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 1932. The state gave about 56 percent of its votes to Donald Trump in 2020. Yet the effort to pave the way for the state legislature to ban abortion won a meager 41 percent.

Massive turnout in the cities was a key factor in the vote, as you might expect. But the antiabortion measure proved surprisingly unpopular in rural counties, as well. Take one at random: In Trego County, part of the endless gray-brown expanse carved by I-70 in western Kansas, roughly 1,600 voters came out in November 2020 and gave Trump 83 percent of their votes. With abortion on the ballot, turnout fell to about 1,100 (according to preliminary results), with 65 percent in favor of the amendment.

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The story was the same nearly everywhere: People who would vote for castor oil if it had an “R” on the bottle either stayed home or quietly voted for the right to choose. In Russell County, where the GOP stalwart Bob Dole won elections to various offices from 1950 to 1992 — and Trump won 80 percent of the 2020 vote — the antiabortion measure carried only about 55 percent.

Though leaders of the Catholic Church poured millions into the antiabortion campaign, the measure led by a mere whisker in Atchison County, where the largest employer is a Catholic university and its associated abbey and monastery. Amazingly, the measure failed in several rural counties, according to preliminary results.

Jason Willick

counterpointThe democratic lessons of Kansas’s pro-choice upset

More than a message to the Republican Party, however, the Kansas vote was a powerful reply to the Supreme Court. Central to the majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., was a theory that courts have no proper role in the abortion debate and that “the authority to regulate abortion” should be “returned to the people and their elected representatives.” Kansans roundly rejected the idea that individual rights should come and go depending on who most effectively lobbies the state legislature, and assured that the Kansas Supreme Court — which in 2019 enshrined abortion protections in state law — will continue to play a deciding role.

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Intriguingly, antiabortion forces in Kansas might have gotten what they wanted if only the solons in Washington had kept quiet. They persuaded the Republican-dominated legislature to place the question on the primary ballot in sultry, sleepy, normally low-turnout August. But the high court’s rash action provoked a surge of voter registrations and unusually heavy turnout.

Voters saw through an inflammatory ad campaign that tried to link support for the status quo to the supposed monsters of Washington liberalism. Mailboxes and TV screens filled with fliers and ads depicting such Enemies of the People as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and President Biden. Existing regulations on abortion in Kansas were ignored in favor of lurid, unfounded claims that voting against the amendment would lead to unlimited abortion at taxpayer expense.

None of it moved the needle. By rejecting these knee-jerk appeals, Kansans demonstrated that this issue, at least — the individual autonomy of women — is not a simple red team vs. blue team contest. On certain matters, Americans want the government to butt out and expect the courts to protect their right to be left alone.

From the legend of King Midas to the story of the magic porridge pot that would not stop, children for centuries have absorbed the lesson that monomaniacal wishes are best left unfulfilled. The Republican Party has for decades hoped and pleaded to have basic abortion rights turned into a perpetual legislative dogfight. It’s a wish the party might soon come to regret.

For now, the GOP is caught between its antiabortion base voters, jealously accustomed to having their extreme positions mouthed by candidates, and the moderate middle who want nothing to do with draconian bans. It has gone all-in on an unpopular position, one it cannot come close to selling even in bright red Kansas. And how’s this for irony:

Smart Republicans ought to be wishing today that their state supreme courts will follow Kansas’ example, protect abortion rights and thus save them from themselves.

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