The state of Kansas is generally considered a red, pro-life state. Yet by an overwhelming margin, voters just rejected a pro-life referendum. Confused by this? You aren’t alone. Voters in Kansas were also confused.
First, let’s dive into the nature of abortion in Kansas, and elsewhere, and then put the referendum into context. In many ways, Kansas is a microcosm of America when it comes to the issue of abortion. A 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 49% of Kansans believed that abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances, while 49% of Kansans believed that it should be illegal in all or most circumstances. Voters in Kansas, as elsewhere, believe that abortion policy should be balanced, allowing abortion in many cases (first trimester ala Roe, rape, life of the mother, etc.) but prohibited in many other cases (late term abortions, abortions for minors without parental consent, because of the sex of the fetus, etc.).
Now let’s look at the referendum itself. By way of background, while Roe and Casey were in force, abortion was available in Kansas just as it was in every other state. The Kansas Legislature, reflecting a pro-life perspective, enacted some 20 laws to limit abortion in some cases and to protect the health of the mother. These include informed consent provisions, requiring parental consent for a minor abortion, prohibiting abortion for sex selection, preventing taxpayer funding of abortion except in the case of rape, incest or the life of the mother, and similar commonsense provisions. In 2019 the state Supreme Court – a left wing, political body that is unrepresentative of the state’s population – issued a ruling finding that a fundamental “right” to abortion had been hiding for 150 years in the preamble of the state constitution. This newly invented “constitutional right” to abortion then became the basis of a challenge to the previously enacted pro-life measures.
Of significant importance, the Kansas Legislature refused to enact a co-called “trigger ban” on abortion that would have prohibited all abortions in Kansas once Roe and Casey were overturned. Thus, it was never the case that the state was on the verge of banning abortion entirely.
Because of the state court ruling in 2019, the pro-life community sought a proposed constitutional amendment – the Value Them Both Amendment – for the 2020 ballot overturning the court ruling and leaving the issue of abortion where it stood before the ruling – no state constitutional right for or against abortion. In Kansas, the only way to put an amendment on the ballot is through the Legislature. The pro-life groups hired consultants close to the Republican leadership to seek legislative passage of the amendment but, because of defections by some key Republicans, the amendment fell four votes short of the two-thirds required to place it on the 2020 ballot.
Let me pause to add this observation: it is my sincere belief that had this very same constitutional amendment been on the ballot in 2020, rather than 2022, it would have passed. In 2020, there was no credible threat to the legality of abortion. The issue would have clearly been about simply restoring the law in Kansas to what it was before the illegitimate invention of a constitutional “right” to abortion by the leftist Supreme Court. Thus, the failure to put this amendment on the ballot it was intended for – 2020 – was catastrophic.
In 2021, thanks to the 2020 legislative elections, some eight Republicans who voted against the amendment were replaced by pro-life legislators and the constitutional amendment was approved to go on the August 2, 2022 ballot. Against this backdrop, the US Supreme Court was considering a case out of Mississippi, Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, that urged the Court to overturn Roe and Casey and return the issue of abortion to the states. In June, the Supreme Court did just that, and in the process completely upended the political environment in which the Value Them Both Amendment was being considered.
Because of Dobbs, it suddenly became a legitimate and viable issue to debate whether abortion should be prohibited and, if so, under what circumstances. Indeed, because of state “trigger” laws, over a dozen states had laws on the books to ban abortion once Roe and Casey were overturned, and another dozen are expected to do so as well. But Kansas wasn’t one of them.
This national narrative of banning abortion versus not banning abortion dominated the political landscape. This suddenly was the context of the debate about the Value Them Both Amendment. Would passage of the amendment result in abortion being outlawed in Kansas? Opponents – virtually the entire abortion industry from Planned Parenthood on down – said “yes,” the measure would lead to a ban on abortions in Kansas. When all the dust is settled, their war chest may top $10 million, an estimated two-to-one advantage over amendment backers. That doesn’t count the millions more in free air time from the media continually repeating the abortion industry’s argument that the amendment would “strip abortion from the state constitution.” Proponents of course denied that the amendment would result in a ban on abortions. But the prevailing narrative was so pervasive that the “yes” campaign actually ended up talking a lot more about what the amendment didn’t do instead of what it did. Curiously, little of their messaging was about the illegitimacy of the state Supreme Court’s action.
Unfortunately, the actual language of the measure – written by the Legislature itself – was confusing and did little to settle the issue. If anything, the vague language suggested that the Legislature could ban abortion if they so chose. Ultimately, this all was too much for proponents of the Value Them Both Amendment to overcome. It was defeated 41%-59%, a veritable landslide.
What does this all mean for the pro-life community in the United States? We can apply a number of lessons. First, as much as I might personally wish it weren’t so, our strongest area of political agreement with voters is not on banning abortions entirely but rather on enacting common sense abortion policies. Numerous national polls show that some 60% of Americans oppose overturning Roe v Wade. That tells you we still have a big job to do to win over the hearts and minds of our fellow Americans. We must continue that dialogue and debate. In the shorter term, our strongest arguments involve advocating for things like informed consent for women, parental consent for a minor’s abortion, banning late term abortions, prohibiting abortions after certain periods of time – such as when a fetus can feel pain for example – prohibiting abortions for sex selection or because of a condition like Down syndrome, and similar provisions.
Another lesson that must be put to good use is this: whenever we find ourselves in a political contest, it’s never good to be debating on our opponents’ terms. Sometimes this is easier said than done – the unique nature of the Kansas election coming just a few weeks after the Dobbs decision likely being one of them. Still, after contesting and winning dozens of statewide amendment and referendum campaigns, I’ve learned that an old axiom in politics remains true to this day – define the terms, win the debate. We pro-lifers must be resolved to define the terms of the battle in clear, concise language. We cannot hand our opponents vague, confusing amendment language that makes it easier to misrepresent what a proposal actually is about.
While this loss in Kansas is beyond disappointing, it is not a harbinger of things to come, especially in predicting – as the liberal media is giddily doing – that the vote shows that Americans reject pro-life policies and politicians and will maintain Democrats in power in the upcoming midterm elections. The unique circumstances of the Kansas vote – a primary election, coming weeks after the Dobbs decision, a heightened environment focused primarily on abortion, confusing language – do not exist in any other state, and certainly don’t exist in any particular Congressional District. Abortion may take on an increased level of importance and contribute to increased voter turnout, but properly positioned, should increase turnout among both pro-abortion Democrats and pro-life Republicans.
And finally, let’s not forget the critical lesson about defining the debate. If the abortion industry could define the Kansas amendment as being about banning abortion, then surely the pro-life community can define the upcoming midterm elections as being about the desire of Democrats to impose abortion on demand up until birth on every state in this nation. You can be certain that this position of theirs is hugely unpopular with voters, and we pro-lifers must force them to defend it. We must return to fighting on our terms.