TOPEKA, Kansas — Lawmakers sent voters a state constitutional amendment Thursday that anti-abortion forces say Kansas needs to keep existing laws intact and that their opponents say could ultimately make abortions unattainable in the state.
The amendment, which supporters call Value Them Both, comes in response to a 2019 court ruling that said there is a right to abortion in the state constitution. The amendment would overturn that by changing the constitution to specifically say that it does not include a right to abortion and that lawmakers can regulate the procedure.
The Senate passage triggers a statewide vote in the August 2022 primary election. Approval by a simple majority of voters would put the language into the Kansas Constitution.
The House approved the amendment last week. The governor does not play a role in amending the Kansas Constitution, so Gov. Laura Kelly will not be able to block it. She has criticized the amendment because she said it will drive economic growth away from Kansas.
Supporters said voters should decide if the Supreme Court ruling was correct.
“Do you believe that the Kansas Supreme Court got it right when they said that our bill of rights, our Kansas Constitution, does provide a constitutional right to an abortion?” Republican Sen. Virgil Peck asked during debate. “I, of course, think it does not.”
Debate over rewriting the constitution has either side speculating about what amending the constitution, or leaving it as is, might mean for abortion law in the state.
Supporters of the amendment, like the powerful advocacy group Kansans for Life, say the 2019 court ruling could be used to overturn abortion restrictions already in state law. That includes regulations on abortion providers, a ban on most abortions after 22 weeks and a requirement for parental consent if a minor seeks to end a pregnancy.
“We could lose all of them due to this ruling,” Republican Rep. Tory Marie Arnberger said during a debate in the House.
Republican Rep. Susan Humphries said it would even block lawmakers from approving health and safety regulations for abortion providers, such as requirements over sterilizing instruments.
“All those good regulations that protect women and babies,” she said, “when they’re challenged, they will be found to be unconstitutional.”
Abortion rights groups reject the idea that lawmakers somehow don’t have the power to regulate a clinic’s safety standards. Rather, they see danger in adding an anti-abortion amendment to the Kansas Constitution. They argue it would open a path to an all-out abortion ban if the U.S. Supreme Court ever reversed the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that promises a federal right to abortion.
Democratic Rep. Stephanie Clayton points to Tennessee. It adopted a similar amendment and passed an abortion ban after six weeks of pregnancy, although a court put that on hold.
“They’re saying it’s not a ban,” she said in an interview, “but if you look at other states that’s exactly where we’re headed.”
To Democratic Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, the entire effort is a misguided attempt to strip women of a right through the Legislature and a statewide ballot vote.
“Human rights should not be put to a popular vote,” Vaughn said
The constitutional amendment would not directly ban abortion. The concern from people like Clayton is that it would eliminate state protections for abortion rights. That means if federal protections for abortion rights are overturned, the state would be free to consider stricter requirements than currently allowed.
Last year, the amendment narrowly failed to get the two-thirds vote needed in the House. Advocates made a new push this year after conservative gains in the last election.
There’s also been a fight over when the public vote on the amendment should happen.
Democrats contend putting it on the primary ballot is a strategy to make approval more likely — by asking a smaller group of voters to decide. Primaries traditionally draw far fewer voters, frequently the most devoted party members.
House Democratic Leader Tom Sawyer said any vote on the amendment should come in the November election when turnout will be higher.
“Putting this constitutional amendment on the August ballot will absolutely deny the rights of all Kansans to voice their opinion,” Sawyer said during a debate in the House. “This is purely a political maneuver.”
Arnberger said all Kansans have the ability to vote in the primary, so they’ll have a chance to weigh in on the amendment.
“This could, and most probably will, increase voter turnout,” she said. “Isn’t that something that we want?”
Stephen Koranda is the Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio – focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.