The First Post-Roe Vote on Abortion

The First Post-Roe Vote on Abortion

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When Justice Samuel Alito and his colleagues squinted at history and ruled that the U.S. Constitution included no right to abortion, Dinah Sykes felt her heart sink. But here she was, on an evening in July, sweating through her blue T-shirt in ninety-five-degree heat, trying to persuade Kansans to block an effort to remove the right to abortion from the state constitution. She held a stack of flyers and carried a bottle of water in a cloth bag slung over her shoulder. A blond ponytail poked through the back of her baseball cap. “Sixty per cent of Kansans believe a woman should have a right to choose,” she said, as she walked from house to house. “And they should not have someone else’s beliefs forced upon them.”

Sykes, a local lawmaker, was in Merriam, a southwestern suburb of Kansas City. Early in her two-hour canvassing session, she climbed the steps of a split-level home and rang the bell. When Adrienne Maples, a professional photographer, came to the door, Sykes launched into her riff: “Are you aware that there is a referendum on the August 2nd ballot?” Before Sykes, who is the Democratic minority leader in the Kansas Senate, could finish explaining that the vote may lead to an abortion ban, Maples interrupted. “I’m pretty sure there are a lot of pissed-off women who will be voting no,” she said. Maples planned to be one of them. “I’m concerned that we’re slipping backwards. This is scary.”

On Tuesday, in the dead of summer, when many Kansans are on vacation and college campuses are largely empty, voters will be asked to amend the state constitution, and give license to the Republican-dominated legislature to rewrite the state’s laws on abortion. It will be the nation’s first direct electoral test of abortion rights since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The Catholic Church is spending millions to advance the amendment, while a broad coalition of pro-choice organizations is scrambling to stop it, testing a new message tailored to appeal to independents and moderate Republicans. The pitch casts the amendment as an infringement on personal liberties—a government mandate “designed to interfere with private medical decisions.” The front of the flyer that Sykes was tucking into screen doors did not mention abortion. It said “It’s up to us to keep Kansans free by Voting No!”

The state G.O.P., which controls more than two-thirds of the legislature, deliberately placed the referendum on the August 2nd primary ballot, knowing that few Democratic races would be contested and that Republicans were the most likely to turn out. Unaffiliated voters, who make up nearly thirty per cent of the electorate in Kansas, have even less reason to show up, as they can’t vote in party contests. In Dobbs, Alito quoted Justice Antonin Scalia, who argued that the issue of abortion should be “resolved like most questions in our democracy: by citizens trying to persuade one another and then voting.” This vote seems designed to keep many citizens out of it. “Very cynical,” Kathleen Sebelius, a Democratic former Kansas governor, told me. Turnout for the past midterm primary election, in 2018, was twenty-seven per cent. In the general election that year, it was fifty-six per cent. “They wanted to handpick their voters,” Sykes said. If the referendum passes, she expects to see legislation by January that would largely outlaw abortion.

Sykes in her office.

The referendum has been in the works for three years, and, until recently, seemed likely to sail through. Then came the Dobbs decision. By ending the federal right to abortion and allowing state legislators to set any rules they want, the Supreme Court energized pro-choice voters, especially women. (Recent polling shows a close contest, with the anti-abortion side slightly ahead.) In Johnson County, the most populous county in Kansas, where pro-choice forces must run up the score if they hope to win, supporters collected five thousand “Vote No” signs from the Democratic Party in the week after the ruling. “It’s been crazy,” Deann Mitchell, the Democratic chair, told me. “So many people have been jumping into the game.” Fred Sherman, the county election commissioner, said that, without Dobbs, turnout would have been low, but now it will be “a blowout.”

I caught a glimpse of the energy on July 4th, when I drove to Topeka for the fifty-first Collins Park Neighborhood Parade. The parade is a cheery affair: just a quick trip around a strip of green in an upscale neighborhood before the Independence Day picnics begin. Four bagpipers in tartan kilts marched in train with vintage cars, an assortment of kids in wagons, and an adult in a Captain America costume. Flags fluttered and spectators cheered. Laura Kelly, the Democratic governor, was there, riding on the back of a classic red Ford Mustang convertible. A few minutes behind her, two groups of vote-no activists appeared. One woman, dressed like a suffragette, propelled herself on a three-wheeled contraption that resembled a penny-farthing. A handwritten sign attached to the back said “Still Marching for Women’s Rights.”

Topeka is outside Johnson County, but, for pro-choice forces, it is still in run-up-the-score territory. I walked alongside Denise Beason, who was handing out “Vote No” bumper stickers. The text, which, again, did not include the word “abortion,” said “Protect Kansans. Vote No August 2 on the Constitutional Amendment.” Beason was eighteen when Roe was decided. “I never thought we would be at this place, at this time,” she told me. The way forward, she said, pointing to the pro-choice marchers, is a “lot of this, a lot of getting young people to vote.” I turned to her daughter Ashley, who walked beside her and held a “Vote No” sign above her head with both hands. Someone applauded. “Thank you!” Ashley called out. She has three young daughters and sees reproductive freedom as “the great equalizer.” If Kansas bans most abortions and one of her daughters needs one, she has the means to travel to another state. “So many women don’t have that access,” she said. “That is really what we should be fighting for.”

In the nineteen-sixties, Kansas was in the national vanguard of abortion legalization. “It wasn’t contested,” Beth Bailey, a history professor at the University of Kansas, told me. “A whole group of people, including the Kansas Council of Churches here, worked really hard to push for elective abortion.” Bailey, who first moved to the state in 1987, lives twenty minutes from the K.U. campus, in a sleek house that overlooks a stretch of prairie. Her book “Sex in the Heartland” traces the importance of the sexual revolution between the coasts. Abortion was so uncontroversial that it’s barely mentioned. “There was tons of talk about sex,” she said. “There was tons of sex. But abortion just wasn’t something people seemed concerned about. The fact that it has become the key dividing issue in the state is shocking to me.”

Women travelled from other states to Kansas to terminate pregnancies. By 1973, when the Supreme Court made abortion legal throughout the country, seventy-five per cent of Kansans believed the decision should be left to a woman alone, or a woman and her doctor. (Opposition was much higher nationwide; in a Gallup poll taken before the ruling, forty-five per cent of respondents opposed even first-trimester abortions.) According to the historian Jennifer Donnally, the rate of legal abortions in Kansas far exceeded that in neighboring states. Anti-abortion activists took note, and, by the end of the decade, had begun to build a diffuse but increasingly effective coalition, rooted in Christian church organizations and strengthened by public protests against abortion providers, notably four clinics in Wichita. The biggest target was Women’s Health Care Services, operated by George Tiller, one of the few doctors in the country who performed abortions late in pregnancy. He sometimes wore a button to work that said “Trust Women.”

Tiller’s one-story clinic in eastern Wichita saw some of the most virulent anti-abortion demonstrations in U.S. history. In 1986, a pipe bomb planted by a protester blew a six-foot hole in the clinic wall and did tens of thousands of dollars in damage. In 1991, Operation Rescue, a national organization, partnered with activists in Kansas to stage the Summer of Mercy, a weeks-long protest in which abortion opponents physically blocked women from reaching clinics by lying down in front of their cars. More than twenty-five hundred people were arrested. On the protest’s final day, a crowd of more than twenty-five thousand attended a rally, which was held in a college stadium and featured an address by Pat Robertson, the evangelical leader. The episode energized the growing anti-abortion movement in the state and across the country. The following year, Kansas legislators tightened restrictions on abortion. In 1993, an activist shot Tiller outside the clinic. (He was hit in both arms, but survived.) Sixteen years later, a man assassinated Tiller as he handed out bulletins to fellow-members of the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita. Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, said Tiller “reaped what he sowed.”

Some of the most staunchly conservative areas in Kansas lie to the west, where the campaign expects to do well. In Wichita, I met Susan Humphries, an adoption attorney and a Republican state representative, on the patio of a coffee shop. She had cut short a family vacation in Arkansas to knock on doors, hand out signs, and otherwise talk up the pro-amendment effort. Humphries believes that life begins at conception, and that there is no moral difference between aborting a ten-week-old embryo and killing a one-year-old child. She “loved” the Dobbs ruling for multiple reasons, including the court’s decision to send the matter “closer to home, back to the people.” If the amendment is approved, it means that the legislature, which has a Republican super-majority, could approve virtually any abortion legislation it likes.

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