Reproductive rights advocates are moving forward energized by the abortion rights movement’s heartening victory this week in Kansas, which signaled that – despite what right-wing forces have claimed – masses of Americans are solidly in favor of bodily autonomy.
Kansas was the first state to vote on abortion rights in the wake of Roe v. Wade’s overturn, and the response from voters intent on protecting Kansas’s status as an abortion sanctuary in an otherwise highly restrictive Midwest was stunning.
Nearly half of all registered voters turned out, a record high; and of these voters, 62 percent voted against the proposed amendment, which would have opened the way for lawmakers to ban abortion in the state. The fact that a majority of voters in such a heavily right-wing state would vote to protect legal abortion is considered a hopeful sign by reproductive rights advocates, who see the vote as a possible bellwether indicating how similar contests could play out in other states.
The abortion rights referendum, which was added to Kansas’s primary elections ballot on August 2, asked voters to accept or reject a proposed amendment misleadingly titled “Value Them Both,” which would have removed the state constitution’s guarantee of legal abortion.
Thanks to voters’ definitive rejection of the amendment, Kansas, which is heavily conservative and generally votes Republican, is expected to remain an abortion sanctuary in a region rife with abortion bans. (The states that are its immediate neighbors have near-total abortion bans.)
Republicans had initially tried to get an amendment titled “Kansas No State Constitutional Right to Abortion” on the 2020 ballot. After that failed, they renamed their proposed amendment “Value them Both,” reflecting the anti-abortion movement’s new attempt to brand itself as “pro-woman” and cast abortion access as a form of violence toward women. The amendment’s language itself is highly convoluted and seems designed to confuse rather than clarify. It reads:
Because Kansans value both women and children, the constitution of the state of Kansas does not require government funding of abortion and does not create or secure a right to abortion. To the extent permitted by the constitution of the United States, the people, through their elected state representatives and state senators, may pass laws regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, laws that account for circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, or circumstances of necessity to save the life of the mother.
The anti-abortion movement has long been active in Kansas. It’s the state where abortion doctor George Tiller was murdered by anti-abortion extremist Scott Roeder in 2009. And the anti-abortion movement went on the offensive in Kansas to make sure that this first post-Roe vote would go its way. The campaign for the “Value Them Both” amendment raised $5.4 million — more than $3 million of which was contributed by the Catholic Church. The campaign spent at least $4.5 million on advertising, employing various Republican-friendly advertising agencies to churn out robocalls, TV spots, flyers, text messages, Facebook ads, and more, often repeating extremely misleading information.
In a TV advertisement in support of the amendment, Mayor Peggy Dunn of Leawood, Kansas, claimed that Value Them Both “doesn’t ban abortion or remove exceptions — that’s just a scare tactic.” While it is true that the amendment does not explicitly ban abortion, it makes ample scope for an eventual abortion ban to be enacted. And in fact, the coalition behind the anti-abortion amendment has claimed that they have proposed legislation to ban abortion ready in the event the amendment passed. A pre-recorded message by Kansans for Life Communications Director Danielle Underwood fretted about late-term abortions, taxpayer-funded abortions, no parental consent laws — even though Kansas’s abortion law prohibits abortions after 22 weeks, only provides public funds in the cases of rape, incest, or the health of the mother, and requires two-parent consent for a minor to receive an abortion.
Most damningly, pro-choice Kansans received texts on the eve of the election from an unidentified number that appeared designed to mislead voters about the amendment and the procedure. The texts read: “Women in KS are losing their choice on reproductive rights. Voting YES on the amendment will give women a choice. Vote YES to protect women’s health.”
In fact, voting “yes” on the amendment would remove the constitutional protection of abortion. And as the texts did not identify the sender, they may have been sent in violation of FCC regulations on political messaging. Tech company Twilio claims it leased the numbers used to send the texts to a Republican-friendly tech company Alliance Forge. Alliance Forge’s Chief Executive David Espinosa told The Washington Post, “Alliance Forge did not consult on this message’s messaging strategy or content.” Twilio has suspended Alliance Forge from its services. According to state campaign finance disclosure reports, Alliance Forge received $26,335 from Do Right PAC, a right-wing political action committee funded mainly by CatholicVote. The PAC was founded by former U.S. representative for Kansas’s 1st congressional district, Tim Huelskamp, a far right politician.
Do Right PAC also funded a video advertisement featuring Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker. In the ad, Butker says, “without this amendment, even barbaric late-term abortions will be allowed” — even though Kansas already has a 22-week limit for abortions.
This use of targeted advertising — and the surveillance involved in mounting such a campaign — vindicates disturbing predictions about technology and surveillance in a post-Roe world. The existence of anti-abortion tech companies that help Crisis Pregnancy Centers target pregnant people through their Internet searches and through geofencing has been known for some time. More alarmingly, this data has been used by law enforcement to target people suspected of terminating their own pregnancies. As states move to criminalize self-managed abortions — and potentially criminalize travelling out of state to receive an abortion — the centrality of Big Tech in stripping people of their bodily autonomy becomes stark.
However, there are positive developments to take away from the Kansas decision. Over half of all abortions in Kansas are performed on patients from out-of-state, even though there are only four remaining clinics in Kansas. This is because the bordering states of Oklahoma and Missouri have enacted near-total abortion bans.
The outcome in Kansas has ramifications for states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, states which are similarly divided on abortion rights and whose lawmakers have been watching this election closely. And finally, the resounding message remains clear: Americans, whatever the anti-abortion right insists, are in favor of abortion rights.