Kan. lawmakers want to block right to abortion by changing Constitution

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Anti-abortion marchers demonstrate at the Kansas Statehouse on Wednesday, 47 years after the Roe v. Wade decision. Daniel Caudill / Kansas News Service

By CELIA LLOPIS-JEPSEN
Kansas News Service

TOPEKA ⁠— Lawmakers are fast-tracking a push
to amend the state constitution and undo a Kansas Supreme Court ruling
that said women have the right to abortion.

The goal, with
voters’ approval in August, is to add a line to the state bill of rights
saying abortion isn’t constitutionally protected ⁠— and that
legislators can regulate abortions, including when a pregnancy results
from rape or incest or threatens a woman’s life.

The proposal already is awaiting floor votes in both chambers, just over a week after the 2020 session began. 

“It’s very important that we allow the citizens of Kansas a say in this,” House Speaker Ron Ryckman said.

The bill,
he said, will be among the first to get a floor debate this session.
House and Senate committees held a joint hearing Tuesday to speed the
process, and the next day ⁠— the anniversary of Roe v. Wade ⁠— both
passed the bill to their respective floors.

Critics are crying
foul over Republicans’ move for a vote in August, which will see a
competitive GOP primary for a U.S. Senate seat, rather than November,
when the presidential election will draw far bigger crowds to the polls.

“They
want to put it out when the lowest amount of people vote,” Democratic
Rep. Stephanie Clayton said. “The rights of Kansans are not subject to a
vote of the people.”

University of Kansas political scientist
Patrick Miller said the August primary will see a “much smaller, much
more skewed electorate” that could boost the amendment’s chances of
passing.

That’s because middle-of-the-road voters tend to vote
less in primaries, he said, and though polling on abortion isn’t
extensive in Kansas, it suggests most residents have mixed feelings on
the topic.

The details

To be enshrined in
the constitution, the proposal needs two-thirds majorities in the House
and Senate, and more than half the ballots cast by the public.

In April, the Kansas Supreme Court concluded women have the right to terminate a pregnancy under the state constitution, which says everyone has “inalienable natural rights.” Those include having control over our bodies and decisions about having a family, the justices wrote.

Kansas’
abortion restrictions range from banning the procedure after 22 weeks
of pregnancy for most women to blocking insurance companies from
covering abortion unless a patient purchases a special policy rider.

Anti-abortion
lawmakers and activists fear those restrictions, won over the course of
years, will fall like dominoes if litigated under the April court
ruling.

Passing the proposed amendment would prevent that from
happening, said Chuck Weber, a lobbyist for the Kansas Catholic
Conference, which represents the state’s four bishops and their
dioceses.

“It’s very, very reasonable — almost innocuous,” Weber
said of the amendment. “I use the word ‘innocuous’ and I realize that
that probably doesn’t fly with some people, but really this just brings
us back to what we were in Kansas prior to the ruling. So, it does not
ban abortion.”

Rachel Sweet, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes,
argued that anti-abortion groups won’t stop at the amendment.

Currently,
Kansas abortion restrictions often include exceptions to save a
mother’s life, but generally not for rape or incest victims. Planned
Parenthood argues the proposed Kansas amendment paves the way to make
the procedure illegal in all circumstances.

“Kansans do not want
politicians interfering in their personal medical decisions,” Sweet
said. “If this (amendment) does get to the ballot, I’m confident that
the voters of Kansas would reject this.”

A 2016 survey by Fort Hays State University
found nearly half of Kansans were somewhere in the middle on abortion
rights, saying it should be legal for most or at least some situations.

Two years later, a Fox News analysis
found a similarly complex picture. Four in five Kansans supported some
level of legal abortion access, and four in five wanted some level of
restrictions. As in the 2016 survey, Kansans were slightly more likely
to believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases than illegal in
all or most cases.

This complex picture means the messaging and
campaigning for and against the constitutional amendment — and how
Kansans ultimately interpret its implications — will determine whether
it passes.

Kansas has four abortion clinics, two in Overland Park
and two in Wichita. About 7,000 people got abortions in Kansas in 2018,
about half came from other states. Neighboring Missouri’s only abortion
clinic is in St. Louis.  

Staff at Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes in Overland Park calls Kansans Wednesday, asking them to contact their lawmakers about the constitutional amendment. Credit Celia Llopis-Jepsen / Kansas News Service
Staff at Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes in Overland Park calls Kansans Wednesday, asking them to contact their lawmakers about the constitutional amendment. Credit Celia Llopis-Jepsen / Kansas News Service

State’s rights?

President Donald Trump has
appointed two conservative-leaning justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Abortion rights activists say that could lead to justices overturning
critical decisions like Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide
in 1973.

Two decades later, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the
high court changed the bar to an “undue burden” test, which was
generally viewed as giving states more leeway for restrictions.

Last
year’s Kansas Supreme Court ruling set a “strict scrutiny” standard for
figuring out whether an anti-abortion law violates the right to control
one’s own body and reproductive decisions. That means abortion
restrictions are only constitutional when the state can show it has a
compelling interest, and tailored a law to that end.

It’s
difficult to say which laws on the books in Kansas today might fail that
strict scrutiny standard, according to Richard Levy, a constitutional
law professor at the University of Kansas.

“With respect to
informed consent and waiting, I think those would be vulnerable,” he
said, referring to laws that make women wait 24 hours for an abortion
and mandate doctors give women information designed to discourage
abortion. “Yet, it’s not 100% clear that the Kansas courts are supposed
to follow the pre-Casey U.S. Supreme court precedents.”

Proponents of amending the Kansas Constitution have launched
letter-writing campaigns and petitions. And dioceses have called on
Catholics to appeal to the Virgin Mary.

John Holecek of McPherson
is coordinating the Kansas Rosary Crusade to get as many Catholics as
possible praying weekly for the amendment to pass.

“I don’t think
it’s a slam dunk by any means,” Holecek said of the amendment’s
chances, “although Kansas has a reputation of being pro-life.”

Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health and education for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celialj_LJ or email her at celia@kcur.org.