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    Tuesday, August 16, 2022

    Kansans resoundingly reject amendment aimed at restricting abortion rights

    OVERLAND PARK, Kan. - In a major victory for abortion rights, Kansas voters on Tuesday rejected an effort to strip away their state's abortion protections, sending a decisive message about the issue's popularity in the first political test since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

    The overwhelming support for abortion rights in a traditionally conservative state bolsters Democrats' hopes that the historic Supreme Court ruling will animate their voters in an otherwise difficult election year for their party. The Kansas vote signals that abortion is an energizing issue that could affect turnout in the November midterm elections.

    The question presented to voters here was whether abortion should remain protected under the state constitution. A "yes" vote would allow Kansas's Republican-led legislature to pass future limits on abortion - or ban it altogether - in its coming session in January. A "no" vote would leave those protections in place.

    With 86 percent of the vote counted, 62 percent of voters wanted to maintain those abortion protections compared with 37 percent who wanted to remove them from the state constitution. Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab predicted that turnout for Tuesday's primary election would exceed other contests in recent years, and possibly match that of the 2008 presidential election, when around 50 percent of the eligible voters cast ballots.

    About 40 miles away, at the Lawrence Heights Christian Church, Justice Ellis, 20, and her sister, Jordan Angermuller, 24, said they were "passionately" voting in favor of abortion rights. The sisters said they believe strongly in a woman's right to choose after watching the struggles of their own mom, who had Jordan at age 17 as a single mom and later became a nurse.

    "She started us on birth control early," said Angermuller, who works as a server in a restaurant. "Just because she had me when she was very young doesn't mean we think somebody should not have the option. They always say, 'Well, if you abort your baby that baby could grow up to cure cancer.' Well, the same thing is true of a young mom who instead of going to school had the baby."

    The antiabortion movement believes "women are meant to be child-makers," Angermuller continued. "They want us to be barefoot and pregnant all the time. Not to have aspirations."

    Ellis, who also works in food service, added, "It definitely feels like we're going back in time."

    Since the Supreme Court ruling, more than a dozen Republican-led states have moved to ban or further restrict abortion. Abortion is currently legal in Kansas in the first 22 weeks of pregnancy, and the state has become a refuge for pregnant patients seeking procedures who are from states with stricter laws, including Texas and Oklahoma.

    As voters went to the polls, The Washington Post reported that a Republican-backed group had sent voters intentionally misleading text messages about the ballot language. A political action committee led by Tim Huelskamp, a former hard-line Republican congressman from Kansas, paid a technology company to blast out texts that said, "Voting YES on the Amendment will give women a choice. Vote YES to protect women's health."

    Voting "yes" actually would have removed abortion protections from the state constitution.

    Across the state, signs that read "Vote Yes - Value Them Both" or "Stop the Ban - Vote No" ornament green summer lawns. The airwaves and social media have been inundated with more than $11 million in advertising spending by interest groups this year, according to reports filed with the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.

    As the sun beat down and the temperature rose to nearly 100 degrees, a family divided over the abortion issue arrived together to vote at the Lawrence church.

    Parents Richard Balden, 71, a warehouse procurer, and Pamela Balden, 61, a financial analyst, voted "yes."

    But their daughter Emily, 24, a logistics coordinator, was a firm "no" vote. "I believe everyone has a right to bodily autonomy. . . . They don't force you to donate organs, why should they force you donating your whole body?" she said.

    Janice Dearinger, 75, a part-time alcohol and drug counselor in Shawnee, Kan., voted an early "yes" to the ballot referendum at Monticello Library on Friday.

    She said that the media and the "Vote No" forces had used scare tactics and unfairly described the amendment as a total ban on abortion; the Value Them Both amendment affirms there is "no Kansas constitutional right to an abortion" and gives the legislature the power to regulate it. Some Kansas legislators have previously said they would sponsor bills saying life begins at conception, had the amendment passed.

    "If you read what they're trying to pass, it's not about banning abortions altogether, it's about limiting the ones that don't need to be done," Dearinger said. "They're not saying you can't have an abortion at all. That's what the media is wanting you to hear."

    Dearinger, a Baptist, has long been against abortion and attended a vigil to pray for the passage of the amendment Monday evening at a Baptist church sponsored by Value Them Both, the key proponent group.

    "God said 'I knew you before you were born, I formed you in your mother's womb, I know every hair on your head.' That's the reason I say yes," Dearinger said. "That child belongs to God. He's given it to that mother, and if that mother don't want that child, there's many, many people that does. I don't think you have a right to do away with a baby for no reason just because you don't want to be pregnant.

    "It's a very touchy issue, and I get it. Bottom line is - that's a human being," Dearinger said.

    Value Them Both argued that the amendment wouldn't mean a total ban on abortion and is necessary to protect laws that were rendered unconstitutional by a 2019 Kansas Supreme Court decision that enshrined abortion rights in the state constitution.

    But critics say this position is deceptive, pointing to previous statements from Republican state lawmakers who have said they are ready with legislation proposing an all-out ban on the procedure for their legislative session in January. Republicans in the state legislature also placed the abortion measure on the ballot as a special election alongside the previously scheduled primaries, where, traditionally, only party-affiliated voters are allowed to vote. Many of the state's unaffiliated voters - 29 percent of the electorate - may not be aware they can vote this time, abortion rights activists argue.

    Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, said abortion rights advocates in the state are still playing catch-up with their more organized opponents.

    The Kansas ballot amendment "should be a wake-up call to anyone who supports abortion access that they need to mobilize and educate like they never have before on this issue, and that doing so won't be easy," Miller said. "There is nothing they can take for granted anymore."

    Aaron Hove, 70, the director of the Haskell Foundation, a nonprofit that supports Haskell Indian Nations University, and his wife, Gayleen Hove, 69 - who voted "no" on Tuesday - agreed with that sentiment.

    "A lot of people fell asleep after Roe was decided in 1973," he said. "Those on other side of the issue have been incredibly energized and worked hard to make their point of view known. That's why we are at where we are today."

    Kansas has long been a stronghold of antiabortion activism. During the "Summer of Mercy" antiabortion protests in 1991, thousands of protesters converged on Wichita and were arrested at sit-ins and clinic blockades. In 2009, George Tiller, one of the country's few third-trimester abortion providers, was assassinated in Wichita by an antiabortion extremist.

    Proponents of abortion rights say that the Republican legislature has stacked the deck in its favor, passing tighter restrictions that have made it harder to register new voters, choosing to hold the vote on a primary day rather than during the general election and selecting a ballot question with convoluted wording that has confused many voters.

    Abortions have increased 13 percent in Kansas over the past two years, according to statistics from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. That has led to criticism from abortion opponents that the state, led by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, is becoming an abortion "sanctuary" for out-of-staters seeking the procedure. Much of the increase between 2019 and 2020 was driven by short-term coronavirus shutdowns in Oklahoma and Texas, officials said. But preliminary data from 2021 shows that the bulk of those were in-state patients.

    However, Trust Women, an abortion clinic in Wichita, has seen a 60 percent increase in its out-of-state patients in the past year, according to Zack Gingrich-Gaylord, the clinic's communications director, and has doubled its overall patient volume this year over the same time period last year.

    - - -

    The Washington Post's Alice Crites and Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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