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Why Abortion Is Particularly Divisive in Kansas

Kansans have seen a long history of battles over abortion. The question may be settled on Tuesday, when voters could approve an amendment that would allow a ban.

Elizabeth Hotaling, right, calls the implications of an anti-abortion amendment “devastating” and “far-reaching.”
(All photos by Alan Greenblatt/Governing)
Latecomers arriving for early morning mass kneel quickly and cross themselves. Twice during the Sunday service at Wichita’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, they are instructed to vote in favor of an amendment on the Aug. 2 ballot in Kansas, which would make clear there is no right to abortion under the state constitution. “The sanctity of life is a bedrock principle of the Catholic Church,” the Rev. John Sherlock says from the pulpit. “It is imperative that you vote yes on the Value Them Both Amendment.”

Across Central Avenue from the cathedral, a small group of women hold up signs calling on parishioners and passing motorists to oppose the amendment. As the bells toll at the start of the second mass of the day, Elizabeth Hotaling, one of the protesters, says, “When a religion starts to impose its beliefs on others, it’s no longer a religion — it’s tyranny.”

Abortion has become a flashpoint across America, but it’s an especially heated topic in Kansas. Voters will face ballot measures this fall in several states to block or protect abortion rights, including California, Kentucky and Vermont. Kansas will not only vote first, but will decide on a measure that could have the most immediate effect.

Three years ago, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the right to abortion is protected under the state constitution. Even as clinics have suddenly shut in neighboring states, abortions are still available in Kansas. The state supreme court ruling “has cleared the path for Kansas to become a haven for unlimited and unregulated abortion,” says Debra Niesen, lead consultant for pro-life ministries with the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan., the top financial backer of the amendment campaign. “This is not what Kansans want.”

The amendment on Tuesday’s ballot would not ban abortion, but would allow the Legislature to do so. “We know that they will ban it as soon as they can,” says Zack Gingrich-Gaylord, communications director for Trust Women, which operates an abortion clinic in Wichita. “We can read the room. They have legislation ready to go that’s a total ban.”

The two sides have collectively spent more than $10 million on the campaign. Polling suggests that the outcome will be fairly close, but the amendment is more likely to pass than not. It was in the works long before the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

That decision, overturning Roe v. Wade, has activated opponents — as have the severe restrictions and bans that have taken effect in neighboring states. Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple says the woman who has cut his hair for years never once asked how to vote for him, but she did seek his advice about sending in a mail-in ballot to oppose the Aug. 2 amendment.

“Normal women are awake and really planning to vote like never before, because of the stakes being this high,” says Whipple, who opposes the amendment. “People felt with Roe that they still had control over their bodies. I think those people are now rightfully fearful.”

Opponents of the measure have seen an uptick in donations, volunteer activity and voter registration since the Dobbs decision was leaked and then released. The number of people voting early as of last week was more than double the total in 2018. Democrats, who typically are much less likely to vote in primaries than Kansas Republicans, nearly closed the gap in early voting.

“Usually I don’t vote unless it’s presidential or governor,” says Wichita resident Grant Purcell. He’s making a point of voting against the amendment, however. “The whole Roe v. Wade thing blew me away,” he says. “If I can vote my opinion, I can do that.”

But even in early voting, Republicans still outnumbered Democrats. Republicans these days are generally more likely to vote on Election Day itself, as to voting early or by mail. Sponsors of the amendment intentionally put it on the primary ballot, when Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly faces no serious primary opposition and the GOP has more contested races up and down the ballot. Twenty-nine percent of registered voters in Kansas are unaffiliated, or independent, and aren’t accustomed to voting in primary elections.

It’s possible that the amendment will be defeated, but supporters remain optimistic that Kansas, like other red states, will soon be able to curb or even ban abortions. “It’s definitely an exciting time to be a part of the pro-life movement in our state,” Niesen says.

Hard to Change Minds

Purcell was puttering in his garage in the Orchard Park neighborhood in Wichita when Paul Brink came walking up his driveway. Brink was out canvassing on a sweltering Saturday afternoon for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, the coalition leading the opposition to the amendment.

Working from a pre-selected voter list on his phone, Brink mainly encounters people who say they’ll vote against the amendment, or have already done so. Those who support it are generally too polite to tell him so directly to his face. Still, Brink says he’s had productive discussions with Republican voters who may be uncomfortable with abortions but are opposed to the idea of government interference. “It’s easier to convince someone to vote for an issue than a person,” says Brink, a law student. “Some people don’t trust politicians, sometimes with good reasons.”
 Ann Rondholz.
“It’s not for nine people in black robes to decide,” says Ann Rondholz, a worshiper at the cathedral. “It’s up to us.”
Brink decides he has nothing to lose in talking to people who aren’t on his list. He encounters a woman named Brenda at a garage sale who says she’s been confused by the rhetoric surrounding the amendment. “I took ‘no’ to mean ‘no limits,’” she says. “I want to vote ‘yes’ for change, but I don’t want it solid one way or another.”

Both sides accuse the other of spreading misinformation and lies. Amendment supporters insist that it is not a ban on abortion, while opponents note that abortion is already regulated in the state. Polls indicate that relatively few people in Kansas support a total ban on abortion. “A little over 60 percent of Kansans would like abortion to continue to be legal in this state,” says Alesha Doan, a public affairs professor at the University of Kansas who has written books about abortion politics. “They do not want to see it banned or criminalized.”

But as is typical with abortion politics — and ballot measures in general — Kansans aren’t being presented with a compromise option. That has created heated politics around the amendment. While Hotaling and her colleagues were picketing outside the cathedral, one man rolled down his car window to yell “baby killers” at them repeatedly. Hotaling responded by shouting, “You’re going to kill women!”

Wichita’s Abortion History

Although Kansas is solidly red when it comes to federal politics, Kelly is one of a long line of Democrats elected governor in recent decades. Partisan control of the office has switched back and forth roughly every eight years since the 1970s.

The Republican Party in Kansas itself has long been split on the issue. Bill Graves, a Republican who was governor in the 1990s, supported abortion rights. Republican Sam Brownback, the GOP governor first elected in 2010, was strongly anti-abortion. Their differences reflect the fact that the abortion question has served as a dividing line between the party’s moderate and conservative wings.

It took conservatives, who have been gathering strength in the state, a considerable amount of time to garner enough votes to override Kelly’s veto and place an abortion question on the ballot. “There still is an active and moderate Republican faction in Kansas,” says Neal Allen, who chairs the political science department at Wichita State University. “They’re a lot smaller than they used to be.”

Arguably, no city in America has been as riven by abortion politics as Wichita. In 1991, thousands of abortion opponents descended on the city for weeks to stage protests and blockades in what was known as the “Summer of Mercy.”

“It really awakened people who were opposed to abortion,” says Doan, the KU professor. “It really helped solidify organizing around the topic of abortion.”
Volunteer Paul Brink speaking with two Wichita residents.
Volunteer Paul Brink reminds Orchard Park residents who support abortion rights of the importance of coming out to vote by Aug. 2
The protesters were drawn to Wichita by the presence of Dr. George Tiller, who ran one of the few clinics in the country providing late-term abortions. Tiller became a longstanding target for Fox News and other conservative media outlets. His clinic had been firebombed several years before the Summer of Mercy. He was shot in both arms in 1993, then assassinated while handing out materials at his church in 2009. Tiller’s clinic, now known as Trust Women, reopened four years later.

Directly adjoining its property is a crisis pregnancy center with a large sign promising “abortion alternatives.” Even on a Saturday afternoon, when the Trust Women clinic is closed, a truck belonging to the Kansas Coalition for Life is parked across the street, displaying graphic, billboard-sized photos of aborted fetuses. “I’ve noticed people becoming more reticent to speak in the clinic setting,” says Gingrich-Gaylord, the clinic spokesman. “They don’t know if they’re going to be arrested when they get back home. Anything that looks like surveillance is upsetting.”

Supporters of the abortion amendment note that Kansas has been attracting more women from out of state since the 2019 state supreme court ruling, and especially since the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. On its website, Kansans for Life warns that Kansas could become “the abortion factory of the Midwest.”

Amendment supporters frequently point out that their yard signs have been stolen or defaced by opponents. “I chuckled the first time they came and did that,” says a Wichita resident who has had several yard signs stolen. He asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, after hearing that cars at his church had been vandalized.

He’s keeping up the “vote yes” signs that have been spray-painted with the word “no” in large letters. He says it makes the “no” side look bad. “It seems very counterproductive, because it shows you will go to that length to decide your opinion’s better than mine,” he says. “You’re overriding my position, or my opinion, on my property.”

What’s at Stake

In college towns like Lawrence and Emporia, “vote no” signs have proliferated. In rural areas, cattle graze under anti-abortion signs, some of which clearly predate the current campaign by years.

Harvey County, just north of Wichita, is a swing county when it comes to gubernatorial politics. It’s voted for the winning candidate each time since 1970. Newton, its county seat, is a small enough town (population 18,500) that a man named Dwight felt perfectly comfortable asking a stranger on Main Street for a ride home on a hot day.

Most people walking in and out of Norm’s Coffee Bar say they’re against abortion and in favor of the amendment. “Whenever they say it’s my body, my choice — they have a baby in there,” says a retiree named LaDonna, who chose not to give her last name. “And they’re not giving that baby a choice.”

But Kristie Goff, a Newton woman who works for a medical transportation company, says she’s voting no. “I do not believe in abortion in general,” she says. “But I do think that’s the beginning of violating basic human rights. It’s just going to start from there.”

While opponents of the amendment have cast it as an attack on rights and freedom, its backers claim in the bluntest possible terms that they are doing no less than combating evil. “The battle for the unborn is the greatest battle in human history,” Carl Kemme, the Catholic bishop of Wichita, said at an interfaith prayer vigil.

Hotaling, protesting outside the cathedral, says it’s unfortunate that “like any other topic that’s emotionally charged,” the amendment question has created divisiveness. Around town, many people say they’ve carefully avoided discussing the issue with family, coworkers and neighbors.

Even as she works to defeat the amendment, Hotaling is not terribly optimistic that her side will prevail. “This amendment is going to open the door for a complete ban, just like our neighboring states,” she says. “People are then going to turn around and say, that’s not what I thought this was.”
A pro-amendment yard sign that was defaced by opponents.
A pro-amendment yard sign was defaced by opponents.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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