Politics & Government

Other states changed their constitutions to limit abortion. Will Kansas soon follow?

Tennessee. West Virginia. Alabama.

Abortion opponents want Kansas to join a small club of states that have changed their constitutions to limit abortion rights in the past decade.

These states demonstrate the challenges of amending state constitutions – but also the potential rewards for anti-abortion activists if they’re successful.

Those states have gone on to further restrict access to abortion, with Alabama instituting a near-total ban and Tennessee banning telemedicine abortions and requiring a 48-hour waiting period.

“If we amend our constitution like Tennessee did … if we can do that, if we can amend it, then there’s nothing our opponents can do at that point except have their own constitutional amendment,” said Mary Kay Culp, director of Kansans for Life, the state’s leading anti-abortion group.

Kansans for Life has pushed lawmakers to pass numerous restrictions on abortion over the years. But those laws are threatened by an April state Supreme Court ruling that abortion is a fundamental right.

So Culp and others have vowed to ask voters to change the state constitution.

Kansans for Life wants an amendment that will make “crystal clear” that lawmakers can pass abortion laws.

“It would return us to the status quo of what we’ve had for the last two to three decades” and allow the “Legislature to legislate,” Culp said.

Culp’s comments echo Tennessee’s approach. Voters there approved a measure in 2014 that says lawmakers can pass or repeal abortion laws, in addition to making clear the state constitution doesn’t include the right to an abortion.

That vote came after Tennessee’s Supreme Court found the state’s constitution included the right to an abortion in 2000.

Backers of the amendment painted Tennessee, which had fewer restrictions than some nearby states, as an abortion destination. Opponents warned it would erode women’s reproductive rights. It passed with 53 percent of the vote.

‘We never knew for certain’

Intense battles have erupted anywhere an amendment has been on the ballot.

West Virginians for Life program director Mary Anne Buchanan said she doubted voters in her state would approve an amendment. But a couple weeks before the election, a Facebook post against the proposal drew hundreds of pro-life comments.

“That gave a glimmer of hope, but up until election night, we never knew for certain,” Buchanan said.

Voters narrowly approved the amendment in November. Alabama also approved an amendment during that election.

Both measures make clear their state constitutions don’t protect the right to an abortion.

Following the amendment, Alabama lawmakers this spring approved a near-total ban on abortions, drawing national attention. The pushback was swift and potentially economically damaging: filmmakers are threatening to boycott the state.

But the ban, and others like it, have the potential to send a fresh abortion case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Both sides of the issue believe that with the installation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the court’s conservative majority may welcome the chance to limit or even overturn Roe v. Wade.

It’s unclear whether Kansas lawmakers would pursue a similar ban if voters approve an amendment. A Fox News analysis of voter surveys in the November election for Kansas governor found 54 percent of voters believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 46 percent said it should be illegal in all or most cases.

Culp said Kansans for Life tries to be in step with and also lead public opinion, “so that when we pass things, they last.” She contends abortion opponents have been able to reduce abortions in the state through legislation. The number of abortions in Kansas fell from 12,445 in 1999 to as low as 6,820 in 2016, according to state statistics.

‘A top priority’

Amending the Kansas constitution won’t be easy.

The state requires two-thirds support from both the House and Senate to place an amendment on the ballot so voters can consider it. Abortion opponents hold a strong majority in the Legislature, but don’t always have two-thirds support.

For example, an attempt to override Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of a bill requiring doctors to inform women that a medication abortion might be reversible — a scientifically-disputed notion — failed this spring when supporters couldn’t find the two-thirds vote needed in the House.

That suggests abortion rights supporters could potentially stop an amendment from getting on the ballot.

“It seems to me they might have a better chance of getting that passed in the House as opposed to the Senate, but here again, I don’t know,” Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said.

If all 11 Senate Democrats oppose the amendment, then opponents only need three more votes to block the measure, Hensley said.

Still, both sides expect a push for an amendment in 2020.

“It will be a top priority to overturn the barbaric ruling the Kansas Supreme Court handed down to us,” Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said in a statement.

Julie Burkhart, CEO of Trust Women, which operates an abortion clinic in Wichita, said efforts to strategize against a change to the Kansas constitution have already begun.

If the effort to stop an amendment from getting on the ballot fails, the next step would be to educate the voters about “what’s at stake,” Burkhart said. Though the public might be more generally alert because of abortion bans passed across the country, not as many people are tuned into the specific fight in their own state, she said.

Activists in Kansas are in for the long haul, she said.

“This is going to be something that’s going to be unfolding over the next 15 to 18 months,” Burkhart said.

Court action expected

Absent an amendment, Kansas courts are poised to begin rolling back abortion restrictions. A district court judge may soon block a ban on telemedicine abortions, citing the recent state Supreme Court decision.

At the same time, a new Missouri law criminalizes abortion after eight weeks of pregnancy and the state’s sole abortion clinic is being allowed to operate only by court order.

The developments raise questions about whether Missourians will seek abortions in Kansas in greater numbers. Last year, Missouri women accounted for nearly half of all abortions performed in Kansas.

Planned Parenthood operates a clinic in Overland Park. Emily Miller, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, said the organization will always help people get the health care they need, whether that means in Kansas or other states.

“What we don’t know is how many people are unable to make a trip out of state — there’s no data to say how many people will ultimately forgo their constitutionally protected health care altogether if Missouri becomes the first state with no health center providing abortion,” Miller said in a statement.

Culp said it’s not clear to her whether the combination of the Kansas Supreme Court decision and the situation in Missouri will increase the number of abortions taking place in Kansas.

The Star’s Crystal Thomas contributed to this story

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