Kansas Is the First Battle in the Post-Roe Abortion War

OLATHE, Kansas—It’s 102 degrees, and the rally to save abortion rights has drawn a crowd of exactly one.

Cassie Woolworth, the head of a local Democratic women’s club, has commandeered as her base of operations a concrete barricade meant to deter would-be terrorists outside the Johnson County courthouse. She unfurls a banner that says Trust Women alongside an image of Rosie the Riveter and hangs it between a trash can and a street sign. In between spritzes of water from a spray fan, she lays out bumper stickers and yard signs urging voters to reject a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would allow the Republican-dominated legislature to ban abortion in Kansas.

Woolworth, a 57-year-old mother of three, devoted her life to politics after the 2016 election of Donald Trump. “Early voting is open now!” I heard her shout into a bullhorn every few minutes. Hardly anyone was around to listen. Support for her cause, however, showed up in other ways. Cars zooming by honked in appreciation, and when a few stopped next to her makeshift table, Woolworth carefully slid yard signs through the passenger window. Eventually, several people walked over to grab campaign gear, including a bride who emerged from her wedding inside the courthouse and left her nuptials carrying a Vote No yard sign. (A “no” vote would safeguard current abortion rights in Kansas.)

Few scenes so neatly capture the combination of passion and desperation powering the long-shot campaign for abortion rights in a state that twice voted for Trump and, for that matter, has not backed a Democrat for president in more than half a century. Early last year, Republican legislators scheduled the anti-abortion referendum to coincide with Kansas’s August 2 midterm primary, assuming that lower and more partisan turnout would deepen their side’s advantage and ensure an easy win. But the Supreme Court’s June ruling overturning Roe v. Wade dramatically heightened the stakes of the vote and energized abortion-rights supporters across the state. “This is a tidal-wave effect,” Woolworth told me, holding up an umbrella to catch a brief moment of shade.

Woolworth turned to a football metaphor, describing Roe’s demise as a long drive down the field by the anti-abortion activists. After nearly five decades, they finally reached the end zone. “This is the two-point conversion,” she said of the upcoming Kansas vote, “and I’m not letting it happen.” Notwithstanding the lackluster rally attendance on this sweltering day, Woolworth does have help. An influx of out-of-state money has allowed a coalition of abortion-rights groups known as Kansans for Constitutional Freedom to compete with abortion foes on television and in door-to-door canvassing. Both sides expect the referendum to be close, and a mid-July poll showed that the “No” vote—urged by abortion-rights supporters—trailed the “Yes” vote by just four points. “I would say we’re cautiously optimistic,” Emily Wales, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which covers Kansas, told me.

Abortion foes drafted the amendment in response to a 2019 decision by the Kansas Supreme Court ruling that the state’s constitution protected the right to abortion. The amendment declares that such a right does not exist in the constitution, thereby allowing the legislature to limit or ban abortion as it sees fit.

[Read: Americans are about to see just how pro-life Republicans actually are]

The outcome of Tuesday’s vote will resonate far beyond Kansas. The referendum will be the first direct vote on abortion since the Supreme Court eliminated a nearly 50-year-old national right to terminate a pregnancy, and Democrats will get an indication of just how much the decision could motivate their voters to turn out this fall. Kansas is surrounded by states that either have already outlawed abortion, such as Missouri and Oklahoma, or will try to in the months ahead, such as Iowa and Nebraska. Rachel Stout, 26, lives in Missouri and can’t vote on Tuesday, but she crosses the border every week to help people seeking abortion care at a clinic in Overland Park. “Kansas,” she told me, “is the last bastion of hope for these women.”

This is not a ban on abortion,” Danielle Underwood, a spokesperson for the coalition backing the ballot question, told me. We were sitting inside a pregnancy center in Overland Park—one of several such nonprofits in the area that look like health-care clinics but are meant to persuade women not to have abortions—that the group had transformed into a campaign headquarters. Underwood was repeating a line that advocates for the amendment say to just about anybody they encounter. Passage of the amendment would prohibit taxpayer funding of abortion, but the procedure itself would still be legal—at least until the Republican legislature convenes to wield the power voters will have given lawmakers to outlaw it, a result that is almost universally presumed.

The intense debate over the abortion amendment has resembled an exercise in creative—and, many would say, underhanded—political marketing. Each side has borrowed language typically associated with the opposition in an effort to win over moderate voters who, polls show, want neither unregulated abortion nor a total ban on the procedure. Abortion foes have named their initiative the “Value Them Both Amendment”—a reference to women and their babies. Approving the measure, they tell voters, would simply reserve for the people (and their elected representatives) the “choice” to “regulate” abortion. Without the amendment, they say, the same judges who recognized a constitutional right to abortion in Kansas could soon wipe out the regulations the state already has on the books, including a ban on late-term abortions and a parental-notification requirement. “All of those laws will be struck down if we don’t pass this amendment,” Underwood said. “That’s our two choices: unlimited abortion or limited abortion.”

The amendment’s opponents say that anti-abortion advocates are obscuring their true intent. Republicans have a supermajority in the legislature and will almost certainly have the votes to override a veto of abortion restrictions if Kansas’s Democratic governor, Laura Kelly, survives a tough reelection bid this fall. Conservative state legislators have already introduced a bill that would ban abortion without exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the mother—a proposal broadly similar to laws that other red states have put in place since the overturning of Roe.

The aim of outlawing abortion is far from the official line of the Value Them Both Coalition, but it slips out frequently. As I left my meeting with Underwood, I overheard a conversation between two volunteers preparing to go canvassing. One of them was describing his message to persuade “abolitionists”—supporters of a total ban on abortion—to vote for a measure that falls short of that goal. “We can’t ban them unless we pass this,” the canvasser said. Then he added: “Can’t say that for an hour and a half.”

As part of an effort to tightly control their public message, campaigners for the amendment have restricted access to reporters. When the longtime anti-abortion advocate Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, headlined a church rally to mobilize support for the amendment, the event was open to the public but curiously listed as “closed to the press.” (I went anyway; no one at the door asked if I was a reporter.)

Standing in front of a crowd of several hundred parishioners, Perkins was considerably more forthright about the desired goal. “It doesn’t end abortion,” he said of the amendment, “but it provides the means to do so.” Inveighing against “a culture of chaos” in America, Perkins characterized the conservative majority on the Supreme Court as “repenting of abortion” with its decision to overturn Roe in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision. “The foundational issue is this: Whose morality will govern our nation? Whose morality will govern Kansas?” Perkins asked. “We must seize this opportunity and wholly return to God.”

“The voters of Kansas,” he added, “will be the first to respond to the opportunity presented by the Dobbs decision to do the works of repentance, and begin building a culture of life and a nation that will walk in obedience to God.”

The crowd nodded along and was soon applauding.

Abortion has long played an outsize role in Kansas politics. Anti-abortion protesters demonstrating against the state’s relatively permissive laws blanketed Kansas in 1991, and the 2009 murder of physician George Tiller, who ran an abortion clinic in Wichita until he was killed by an anti-abortion activist, remains fresh in many people’s memory. Wales, of Planned Parenthood, told me that the Tiller murder still makes it difficult to attract doctors willing to perform abortions in Kansas—so much so that Planned Parenthood has been unable to meet the surge in demand from women traveling to Kansas from states where the procedure is, in most cases, already illegal. “It’s absolutely fair to say there’s increased demand,” Wales said of Planned Parenthood’s clinics in Kansas. “There has not been a huge increase in the provision of care, because we just don’t have [enough] providers within them.”

The strategies of both the abortion-rights and anti-abortion campaigns make it clear that neither side believes a majority of Kansans are definitely with them. “It’s a complex issue,” Underwood told me, all but acknowledging that voters do not want a total ban. “We know that there are very different opinions about where the limits should be. But we also know that without this amendment, Kansans will not have any say in the matter.”

For their part, abortion-rights backers know that they have to target independents and even Republicans, if only because there simply aren’t enough Democrats in Kansas to win any election without them. Ads run by Kansans for Constitutional Freedom strike a libertarian note, describing the amendment as a license for a “government mandate” barring abortion and comparing the issue to the fraught debate over vaccine and masking requirements during the pandemic.

“Vote ‘No’” canvassers knocking on doors every weekend have noticed that organizers are sending them to more and more Republican households—a decision based both on necessity and what they say is a growing opposition to the amendment among moderate GOP voters. “I’ve talked to a lot of Republicans who don’t want the amendment to pass, because they think it’s government overreach,” Kim Biagioli, a 38-year-old lawyer who’s been canvassing in Johnson County multiple times a week for months, told me.

[Read: The abortion message that some activists hate]

Opponents of the amendment were always planning to mount an aggressive campaign to defeat the measure, but any chance they have at victory is probably due to the Supreme Court’s ruling in June. “Post-Roe, there’s just been a huge shift,” Chuck Cordray, 59, a real-estate investor who serves on his local Democratic committee in Leawood, Kansas, told me. “There are a lot of ‘Vote No’ signs, and they’re not only in Democratic yards.”

Although Kansas has not sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since the 1930s, the state has occasionally rebelled against conservatism. Kelly, a Democrat who appealed to independents and moderate Republicans, won the governorship in 2018 after the two-term conservative Sam Brownback decimated the state’s budget in a failed experiment in ultra-low taxation. Nor is the state quite as crimson as it used to be: Trump’s healthy 15-point win in 2020 was the smallest margin of victory for a Republican presidential nominee there since 1992.

Still, abortion-rights supporters face challenges that might prove too difficult to overcome. The state’s rural western half is expected to vote overwhelmingly for the ballot measure. In the suburbs of Kansas City and in Wichita—the state’s population centers—opponents must not only persuade but turn out independent voters who would otherwise stay home on Tuesday because they can’t participate in the closed party primaries. Confusion is another hurdle. Democrats say they’ve encountered voters who believe a “Yes” vote is an affirmation of abortion rights, as well as others who have been taken in by the “Yes” campaign’s soft messaging that the amendment simply allows for the regulation of abortion. “The way that it’s worded is very clever,” Kyle Burk, a 28-year-old software engineer, told me after he emerged from casting a “no” vote in Olathe. “It’s almost dangerous.”

At the same polling place, Nikki, 64, told me that she voted in favor of the amendment even though she opposes a ban on abortion. “I found the debate confusing,” she said, adding that she ultimately voted “yes” because she opposes taxpayer funding of abortion. “I’d like to see it limited, but women should have a choice.”

It is voters like Nikki who could put victory just out of reach for abortion-rights supporters. From a political perspective, coming up a few points short in a red state such as Kansas might be a positive sign for Democrats nationwide. It would suggest that outrage over the curtailing of abortion rights will mobilize voters and give them a chance to win states and districts where they aren’t so outnumbered. “My hope is that they are really able to push back and be successful,” Wales told me. “But even if they’re not, it is an incredible moment for people in Kansas to get close and to say, ‘This is too far.’”

Yet for women in Kansas, a two-point loss might be no different from a landslide. Democrats believe that Republican legislators will take even a slim margin of victory as a mandate to ban abortion across the state. Outside the Johnson County courthouse, I had asked Cassie Woolworth, the lone protester, whether she would take some solace in a narrow defeat, knowing the long odds.

“Oh, I get it,” she replied at first. “I say that too.” Then she seemed to reconsider, and her face grew serious. “No,” she said. “We can’t lose this one.”