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Kansas referendum marks new turn in America’s war over abortion

Comment writer Matteo Cardarelli on Kansas’ recent referendum on abortion rights and its significance for the rest of the US.

The national debate over abortion rights saw yet another twist this week, as voters in Kansas overwhelmingly rejected state Republicans’ proposal to ban abortions in the state. The referendum was been hailed by many on the right as the next frontier in the quest to erode abortion access across the country. These attempts have gained vigour after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in a landmark decision – Dobbs vs Jackson Women’s Health Organization – earlier this year.

The importance of the vote, which accompanied the state primary on the ballot, was hard to overstate.

For the right, it was a chance to consolidate gains made at the federal level on a regional scope, flipping a state that (unlike most other traditional Republican territory) retained the right to abortion. Kansas’ conservative slant in electoral politics made it seemingly ripe for change. Donald Trump handily won there in 2020 by a margin of almost fifteen percentage points. The state legislature is dominated by Republicans in both chambers, enjoying an almost two to one advantage. Both of its Senators are staunch conservatives. Current Senator Roger Marshall hailed the Dobbs ruling, calling it the genesis of a movement to “[heal the] wounds the pro-abortion ripped open on American society.”

For the left, Kansas remained a vital cog in the operation to protect the remaining pro-choice states in the region bordering the Deep South, where a slew of trigger bans have rendered abortion access strictly conditioned. Defeat in the referendum would have the ripped hope from the desperate grassroot effort being waged by many pro-choice activists. 

The referendum – formally the ‘Value Them Both’ Amendment – attracted criticism for its counterintuitive phrasing, which some took as a deliberate effort from lawmakers to disorient the public. The question actually put to voters was whether the state constitution should be amended to explicitly exclude protections for abortion, thus allowing the state legislature to pass laws regulating the procedure. Courts had previously interpreted a right to abortion as implicit in Kansas’ state constitution, similar to how Roe was interpreted by SCOTUS.

In short, a ‘yes’ vote stood for pro-life, and ‘no’ for pro-choice. Yet not even the confusing language could prevent a landslide, as the ‘no’ vote garnered a crushing 59% of the votes.  Stressing the importance of and attention on the event, 47% of registered voters cast a ballot, extremely high participation for a statewide referendum.

Despite the emphatic result, on the eve of the vote activists on both sides of the divide seemed uncertain of the outcome. Victory was greeted with a collective sigh of relief by pro-choice campaigners. In each of Kansas’ four congressional districts, the no vote beat out the ‘yes’ by varying margins. Around 56% of registered Democrats voted, compared to 53% of registered Republicans, a very rare occurrence in red state ballots where Republican primaries tend to be far more competitive and engaging than Democratic ones. Almost as many unaffiliated voters turned out as Democrats, even more impressive as their only ballot on the day was the abortion referendum.

Conservatives were dismayed at the outcome, but pledged to keep on fighting. The ‘Value Them Both Campaign’ called the vote a “temporary setback” and vowed, “We will not abandon our women and babies.” ‘Kansans For Life’, a major campaigner in-state, made a similar promise: “We will be back.” Chuck Weber, a high-ranking member of the Kansas Catholic Caucus, offered a more reflective view, noting the importance of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in shaping the outcome: “That energized the abortion industry beyond I think anyone’s anticipation.” But he too claimed that the pro-life movement was not finished in Kansas, telling journalists that despite the vote, “We’re not giving up.”

For Democrats, this is a much-needed win in the hitherto lackluster defense of Roe’s integrity. Kansas also proves an important point: abortion bans are unpopular. If the push towards criminalisation falls short in red Kansas, would it even stand a chance in any of the purple states? Gone are the days of genuine partisan divide over abortion. The majority of Americans are pro-choice and Kansas reaffirmed that, much to Republicans’ chagrin. A New York Times report released in the aftermath of the vote estimated that four of five states across the country would vote ‘no’ in a Kansas-style referendum. 

Perhaps the result of the Kansas referendum will convince some of the more moderate members inside the GOP to quietly abandon the recent wave of overt anti-abortion radicalism. The evidence points to a different path. It is more likely that Republicans will produce more conciliatory messaging in pursuit of the same goal. In the hangover from the Dobbs ruling, the stridency of the GOP drew the ire of a broad coalition in Kansas, turning this first page of post-Roe America into a small victory for wounded liberals. The midterms beckon, but persistence with unpopular abortion politics could yet damage a rosy picture for Republicans. 



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