Kansas votes to maintain abortion rights, in first test since Roe v. Wade overturned

Biden hails result and urges Congress to pass a bill permitting abortion on a federal level; referendum draws high turnout, similar to that for a general election

Field organizer Jae Grey places signs on the podium before the pro-choice Kansas for Constitutional Freedom primary election watch party in Overland Park, Kansas, August 2, 2022. (Dave Kaup/AFP)
Field organizer Jae Grey places signs on the podium before the pro-choice Kansas for Constitutional Freedom primary election watch party in Overland Park, Kansas, August 2, 2022. (Dave Kaup/AFP)

OLATHE, United States (AFP) — Abortion rights advocates celebrated Tuesday as the Midwestern US state of Kansas voted to maintain the right to the procedure, the first major poll on the flashpoint issue since the Supreme Court overturned nationwide access in June.

Kansans rejected an amendment that would have scrapped language in the state constitution guaranteeing the right to the procedure and could have paved the way for stricter regulations or a ban.

The vote was widely seen as a test case for abortion rights nationwide, as Republican-dominated legislatures rush to impose strict bans on the procedure following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Pro-abortion rights campaigners and supporters celebrated the win for their side of the hotly contested US debate.

“I’m just beside myself,” campaign volunteer Anne Melia told AFP.

When polls closed at 7 p.m. (0000 GMT), Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab said turnout was as high as 50 percent on this referendum, local media reported, a number usually expected for a general election.

Representative Sharice Davids, a Kansas Democrat, shares a group hug with women during the pro-choice Kansas for Constitutional Freedom primary election watch party in Overland Park, Kansas August 2, 2022. (Dave Kaup/AFP)

Poll worker Marsha Barrett said some 250 voters had come to a station in the Kansas City suburb of Olathe by noon — the same number it might see all day in a presidential election.

“This election is crazy,” Barrett told AFP. “People are determined to vote.”

US President Joe Biden also hailed the result. “Tonight, Kansans used their voices to protect women’s right to choose and access reproductive health care,” he said on Twitter.

“It’s an important victory for Kansas, but also for every American who believes that women should be able to make their own health decisions without government interference.”

In a separate statement, he urged Congress to “listen to the will of the American people” and pass a bill codifying the right to abortion.

Other states including California and Kentucky are set to vote on the hot-button issue in November, at the same time as Congressional midterm elections in which both Republicans and Democrats hope to use it to mobilize their supporters nationwide.

‘Remarkable’ result

In Kansas, the ballot centered on a 2019 ruling by the state’s supreme court that guarantees access to abortion.

A poll worker helps a voter cast their ballot in the Kansas Primary Election at Merriam Christian Church on August 02, 2022 in Merriam, Kansas. (Kyle Rivas/GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/Getty Images via AFP)

In response, the Republican-dominated state legislature introduced an amendment known as “Value Them Both” that would have scrapped the constitutional right — with the stated aim of handing regulation of the procedure back to lawmakers.

In the opposing camp, activists said the campaign was a barely masked bid to clear the way for an outright ban — one state legislator had already introduced a bill that would ban abortion without exceptions for rape, incest, or the mother’s life.

For Ashley All, spokeswoman for pro-abortion rights campaign Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, the result of Tuesday’s referendum was “remarkable.”

“Kansans understood that this amendment would mandate government control over private medical decisions,” she said.

But voter Sylvia Brantley, 60, told AFP earlier in the day she voted in favor of the change because she believes “babies matter, too.”

She said she wanted to see more regulations, in the hope that “Kansas will not be a marketplace for killing babies.”

Young supporters of the Vote Yes to a Constitutional Amendment on Abortion hold up signs along 135th Street on August 01, 2022 in Olathe, Kansas. (Kyle Rivas/GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/Getty Images via AFP)

Activists complained that the phrasing of the ballot question was counterintuitive and potentially confusing: voting “Yes” to the amendment meant abortion rights would be curbed, while people who wished to keep those rights intact had to vote “No.”

All eyes on Kansas

While abortion rights advocates in Kansas could breathe a sigh of relief in their own state, they still are looking nervously to neighboring Oklahoma and Missouri, which are among at least eight states to have passed near-total bans — the latter making no exceptions for rape or incest — while Midwestern Indiana adopted its own rigid ban on Saturday.

Kansas Governor Laura Kelly tweeted her support for the amendment’s rejection.

“Kansans stood up for fundamental rights today,” the Democrat said.

“We rejected divisive legislation that jeopardized our economic future & put women’s health care access at risk.”

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly answers questions from reporters during a news conference, Feb. 10, 2021, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kansas (AP Photo/John Hanna)

One voter in the town of Prairie Village, who declined to give her name, said she struggled to decide which way to vote.

“I’ve gone back and forth the whole time,” she told AFP, saying she ultimately chose to vote “no.”

“I feel like women should have a choice, but I also don’t want full-term babies aborted,” she said.

The outcome in Kansas means that abortion will remain permitted up to 22 weeks of pregnancy.

Kansas leans heavily toward the Republican Party, which favors stricter abortion regulations, but a 2021 survey from Fort Hays State University found that fewer than 20 percent of Kansas respondents agreed that abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape or incest.

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