Despite rejection in election, Kansas anti-abortion groups vow 'we are not going anywhere'

·7 min read

A little over a month after the national anti-abortion movement celebrated the end of Roe v. Wade, Kansas activists were disappointed in a failed attempt to strip abortion rights from the state constitution.

"Our movement has endured so much over 50 years," said Peter Northcott, executive director of Kansans for Life. "Fifty years. This setback is not going to stop us. Our resolve has never been stronger than in this very moment."

Abortion access was thrust into the forefront of American politics when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the longstanding precedent in Roe. A wave of trigger laws and abortion bans swept through Republican-led states.

In Kansas, the anti-abortion movement remained focused on the so-called Value Them Both amendment, which would have stripped abortion protections established in a 2019 Kansas Supreme Court decision.

More: Driven by abortion politics, Kansas primary election voters turned out in high numbers

Voters resoundingly rejected the amendment by an 18-point margin.

"The residents of Kansas have signaled their strong desire to reject the dangerous acceleration of anti-abortion legislation that has swept the country over the past year," officials at Trust Women, a Wichita clinic, said in a statement.

'I don't see this vote outcome as a referendum'

Abortion opponents don't see the election outcome as a repudiation of their beliefs, instead blaming out-of-state donors for funding commercials, which they alleged to be misleading, and the media.

"I don't see this vote outcome as a referendum that Kansans want more on demand abortion in this state," said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, the only elected official at the Value Them Both watch party who stuck it out until the end. "I see this really being a vote of no against the constitutional amendment was a vote of fear."

Matt Schlapp, chair of the influential Conservative Political Action Conference, called it "a blip."

"None of this rattles me or concerns me," said Melissa Ohden, who founded the Abortion Survivors Network.

More: Planned Parenthood opened a new clinic in Kansas as surrounding states ban abortion

Peter Northcott, executive director of Kansans for Life, delivers the concession speech for the Value Them Both Coalition at a watch party in Johnson County.
Peter Northcott, executive director of Kansans for Life, delivers the concession speech for the Value Them Both Coalition at a watch party in Johnson County.

"Kansas is a pro-life state and we do value both women and children," Northcott said. "We are not going anywhere."

The support from across a wide spectrum of various religious faiths who "cared about women and children ... should give us all the hope that we need," he said. "In this difficult time, in this time of confusion, we know that our state will have better days ahead of us.

"We're going to get through this difficult period, and women and children will be protected in the state of Kansas."

Possible legislative actions

House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, addressed constituents in a Friday newsletter.

While he called the vote a "disheartening" setback, he promised to "continue fighting" and urged supporters to help "change the hearts and minds of Kansans who don't fully comprehend what is at stake."

"The loss was hard and many of us can probably name someone who is ready to give up simply because they think the fight is over," Hawkins said. "Others are waving the same white flag in another way by rejecting the success we've had over the years as too little or too incremental — that this is an all or nothing scenario.

"While the many common-sense limits Kansans have passed on abortion through their representatives over recent years have certainly been a gradual move in the right direction, the lives saved through those efforts have each been very real."

Hawkins said in a statement that defending existing regulations will be a top priority. On the other hand, Kansas Catholic Conference executive director Chuck Weber believes that all restrictions will be struck down by courts.

More: In decisive abortion-rights victory, Kansas voters reject constitutional amendment in first post-Roe vote

"I think it's going to be a fool's errand because the strict scrutiny standard is very high," he said.

Baumgardner promised that the "struggle for life" will continue.

"I think that we can continue to look at what would be appropriate legislation," Baumgardner said without elaborating on what that could be.

She said it is likely that the Legislature considers constitutional amendments next session, but "what issues they will address, that is yet to be seen."

It is possible that politicians could push for another try at a constitutional amendment, perhaps one more directly designed to ban abortion.

'Pro choice crowd in Kansas should have embraced VTB'

Schlapp, the CPAC chair and a Wichita native, helped campaign for Value Them Both. In a series of tweets, he downplayed the significance of Tuesday's vote. He claimed the proposed amendment did not go far enough and that an outright ban would have won.

"It’s biggest problem was it was too timid for many pro life voters," Schlapp said. "It was not a heartbeat bill. It was a late term ban along (with) other basic regulations.

"With a pro life governor look for much stronger pro life victories soon a blip."

"Ironically," he said in another tweet, "the pro choice crowd in Kansas should have embraced VTB as it is the best case scenario for them."

Last session, partially in response to the 2019 abortion decision, Republican lawmakers narrowly failed to pass an amendment restructuring how Supreme Court justices are selected.

More: Lawmakers may change how Kansas Supreme Court justices are picked as redistricting case looms

While Supreme Court justices are not elected, they do face retention elections. Six of the seven justices will be on the November ballot, though only three participated in the 2019 decision. The other three were appointed after.

Political groups could target the five justices, reminiscent of the 2016 "reject all but Stegall" campaign in response to education funding decisions. Kansans for Life was one of the main backers of the ouster effort. All of the targeted judges survived the retention election.

Pregnancy resource centers provide alternatives

Weber predicted more focus from religious organizations and state government, through the Senator Stan Clark Pregnancy Maintenance Initiative, on pregnancy resource centers.

"The Catholic Church is and always will be pro-life," Weber said. "We, even prior to the vote (Tuesday) night, were already amping up our efforts to provide resources and support for pregnancy resource centers.

"So now that value than both has been defeated, at least for the time being, we are going to almost certainly see an influx of women and girls coming into Kansas for abortions.

"We want to provide for them alternatives, the resources and the alternatives, so that they bring their child into the world and then not only bring their child into the world, but also thrive and prosper with that child and help show them that life is a beautiful thing, that a child is not a disease.

"It's not something that should be eliminated from a woman's body but it is in fact a gift."

More: Crisis pregnancy centers' influence will grow in Kansas during abortion debate. Just what are they?

Weber said lawmakers should allocate more funding to the program, which currently disburses about $350,000 to a mix of local health departments and faith-based health organizations. He would also like to see action to address the foster care system.

The Church was also instrumental behind the scenes, Weber said, at convincing conservative lawmakers to expand Medicaid coverage for new moms. Still, he doesn't think the emphasis should be on governmental actions.

"More importantly, and a bigger emphasis from the Catholic Church, will be talking to our people about welcoming and being more helpful to women and girls who find themselves in an unplanned pregnancy," he said.

While the Church spent large sums on the Value Them Both campaign, Weber said it "a rising tide that lifted all the respect life boats" for charitable giving.

"The Catholic Church is the single largest social service agency privately funded the world has ever known," Weber said.

"If you are in need of a coat, we'll give you one, if you need a meal, we'll give you one, if you need a place to stay, we'll find you a place to stay," he said. "That's also our mission.

"So this whole narrative that, well, this money could have been spent better here or there, I think is a false narrative. We have to defend the moms and the babies, because they are indeed the most vulnerable in our society right now."

Jason Tidd is a statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached by email at jtidd@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jason_Tidd.

This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Kansas anti-abortion groups press on after Value Them Both failure