Kansas is one of ten US states that has the right to abortion embedded in its constitution. This week Kansas voters were asked in a referendum whether they wanted to amend the constitution and ban abortion, or to reject the amendment, and keep abortion legal. The overwhelming majority of those who voted, 62 per cent opposed the amendment, while 38 per cent were in favour of it. According to the New York Times, the two sides of the referendum spent around 12 million USD on advertising equally distributed between them. One of the major supporters of the yes campaign was the Catholic church that spent 3 million USD to convince Kansans to remove abortion rights protections form the state’s constitution.
The Republican majority Kansas Legislature tried to remove the guarantee to abortion from the state constitution
The referendum was significant as it is the first time abortion rights were put to a vote following the US Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The removal of Roe v. Wade gave each state the authority to decide on how to regulate abortion, and thereby, the ruling also opened doors for conservative leaning states to further restrict abortion or even completely ban them. In an attempt to capitalise on the Supreme Court’s decision, the Republican majority Kansas Legislature tried to remove the guarantee to abortion from the state constitution, however, voters decided differently. Supporters of an amended constitution highlighted that the amendment in itself would not have banned abortion in the state, it would have just allowed legislators to rethink the scope of abortions in Kansas. On the other hand, those opposing the change argued that once the guarantee is taken out of the constitution, a tightening of the abortion law would unavoidably follow.
Currently in Kansas abortions are allowed up to the 22nd week of pregnancy. Interestingly, however, about half of all abortions in Kansas are carried out for out-of-state residents. Kansas is surrounded by states that have much tighter laws (or even near to complete bans on abortion), which resulted in the state becoming a recipient of “abortion tourists”. Residents of Oklahoma and Missouri, where abortion is virtually illegal, as well as those of Arkansas and Texas (where recently new restrictions have been put in place) all travel to Kansas for abortion.
The outcome may come as a surprise for some as Kansas is historically strongly Republican in presidential elections. The state was a major supporter of Donald Trump in 2020 and the last Democratic presidential candidate Kansas voted for was Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s. The state also has much more registered Republicans than Democrats. It needs to added, however, that the state has a Democrat Governor, and the majority of the Kansas Supreme Court justices were also appointed by Democrats. 15 per cent more Kansans voted against the constitution amendment than for Joe Biden in 2020, and it is estimated that one fifth of the votes opposing the amendment, that is, those wanting to keep access to abortion unchanged, came from Republicans.
2018 poll found that Kansans were more evenly split on the question of abortion
An earlier, 2018 poll found that Kansans were more evenly split on the question of abortion – which also explains why the referendum result came as a surprise to many. The Washington Post believes that the anti-amendment side got more votes because they managed to frame the question as one about having access to abortion at all, rather than about restricting abortion. The 2018 poll asked people for their views on restricting abortion, without actually banning it. While respondents at the time were evenly split on the question of whether abortion should be restricted, this referendum was successfully branded by the “no” campaign as one about the prohibition of all abortions which clearly is not an option that the majority favours.
Others attribute the pro-abortion camp’s victory to the unusually high turnout. More than 900,000 people cast their vote in the referendum, which corresponds to around one third of the state’s total population, and is about two thirds of the number of votes cast in Kansas in the 2020 presidential election (presidential elections have a high turnout as a rule). The turnout can be regarded as especially high considering that the referendum was held in the summer. It remains to be seen in the midterms in November whether the vote was a sign that the state of Kansas has shifted to the left, or the referendum is the exception and not the rule.
Lili Zemplényi is a graduate of University College London (UCL). Currently, she is completing her MA at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Previously, she worked as an intern at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Institute for Political Science.