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No Means Yes to Abortion: Kansas Votes on Confusing GOP-Backed Constitutional Amdt. to Ban Abortion

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Image Credit: Twitter: @amylittlefield

We go to Kansas, where voters today are deciding whether to pass a constitutional amendment that would override a 2019 state Supreme Court ruling establishing a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy. If the amendment passes, it will clear the way for Republican state lawmakers to ban the procedure, which they have vowed to do. Kansas is the first state in the country to vote on the right to abortion and one of the last states in the region to still allow abortion, with clinics there having reported an influx of patients from neighboring states, including Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, after the Supreme Court reversal of Roe v. Wade. Republicans are “strategically using tactics of voter suppression” to ensure the amendment passes by requiring strict registration guidelines and drafting “incredibly confusing” language in the amendment, says reproductive health reporter Amy Littlefield. Despite this, she says the abortion rights community feels “cautiously optimistic” that the enormous grassroots mobiliziation in response to the overruling of Roe “might just be enough” to strike down the amendment.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn to the first major vote that could shape reproductive rights at the state level since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Today Kansas is set to vote on a ballot measure that could repeal the state’s constitutional protection for abortions and pave the way for conservative lawmakers to enact a near-total ban on abortion. Four states already have similar measures in place: Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia. For now, abortion is legal in Kansas, and clinics there have reported an influx of patients from neighboring states where abortion is banned, including Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas.

For more, we go to Wichita, Kansas. That was home of George Tiller, assassinated, what, about 13 years ago. He ran an abortion clinic there. We’re joined by reporter Amy Littlefield, who focuses on reproductive healthcare, the abortion access correspondent for The Nation, her recent piece, “In These 6 States, Abortion Rights Are Literally on the Ballot.”

You’ve been on the ground, Amy, in Kansas ahead of today’s vote. Welcome back to Democracy Now! Lay out what you’re seeing.

AMY LITTLEFIELD: Hi, Amy. It’s great to be with you on this pivotal day.

I’m here in Wichita, Kansas, not far from the clinic of the assassinated abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, where I spent the day yesterday. And I wanted to come to Wichita to report on this amendment, because it’s a city with such a deep and rich history, and complicated and violent history, when it comes to abortion rights in this country.

So, what’s happening here in Kansas today, Amy, is that the Republican-controlled state Legislature is trying to repeal the right to an abortion that’s enshrined in state Constitution. The state Supreme Court in 2019 said there is a right to abortion under the state Constitution. And that’s allowed clinics here to remain open.

And, you know, just to give you a sense of the stakes in terms of where Kansas is on the map, if you look at that map, Amy, I mean, it is a wall of deep red to the east and to the south of Kansas. And so, patients from Oklahoma, from Texas, from Louisiana, from Arkansas, from Missouri are all flocking to this state, that has actually quite a few abortion restrictions in place already here. It’s not by any means a haven state. Abortion is actually quite heavily restricted here. But it is a pivotal state where patients are flocking from across the region.

And so, what Republicans here are trying to do is strip away this right from the Constitution strategically using tactics of voter suppression. And that started with when they scheduled the vote. So, they scheduled it for the August 2nd primary, when turnout is about half of what it typically is in a general election. They scheduled it during a primary, knowing that about 30% of voters in Kansas are unaffiliated with a political party, so they’re not used to voting in primaries. They may not realize that you can still go to the polls and vote on a ballot amendment like this one — a ballot referendum like this one, even if you’re not registered with a political party. Kansas has a requirement that people have to register three weeks before the election. So, one of the clinic workers was saying to me yesterday that her son, who’s 18, has a “vote no” bumper sticker on his car. He’s so excited to vote in favor of abortion rights, which is “no” — the “no” position is for abortion rights. And he’s so excited to vote, and then he realizes he just had registered the night before. Well, he’s weeks too late to register to actually vote in this election under Kansas law.

The language of the amendment is incredibly confusing. I mean, it starts out by stating what the state Constitution already says, and then it gives the people, through their elected state representatives, the ability to pass laws regarding abortion, including ones that have exceptions for rape or incest. Well, reading that, you know, you might have to really puzzle through whether that sounds like a good thing or a bad thing — right? — and whether the pro-choice vote is “yes” or “no.” If you want to keep the status quo, is it “yes” or “no”?

And then, to top things off, yesterday a text message from a toll-free number went out to thousands of Kansans. I was sitting — standing in the clinic when the staff there started getting notifications that even people that they knew were getting these text messages. And these text messages said voting “yes” will give women a choice. Well, it’s the total opposite of that, in fact. Voting “no” is the pro-choice position here. Voting “yes” would allow state lawmakers in Kansas to pass even the most extreme anti-abortion laws here. And so, this was a very clearly deceptive text from an anonymous number. And I tried to trace it, I tried to call it, I tried to message it, and I just got a dial tone. So — and it’s a violation, most likely, of FCC rules, according to the ACLU.

So, this is just to sort of give you a sense of this is not an up-or-down clear yes-or-no vote on abortion, because abortion rights proponents here understand that abortion is a popular issue. A majority, more than 60%, of Kansans do not want to ban abortion in all circumstances. And so, it’s just a question of whether those people get to the polls, can vote, and understand what they’re voting for. We know that when measures to ban abortion or enshrine personhood for fetuses have been on the ballot, and it’s a direct question of the most extreme abortion ban or not, those measures have been voted down in even the most conservative states, like South Dakota and Mississippi. But what’s left clear —


AMY LITTLEFIELD: Yeah, go ahead.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Amy, I’d like to ask you — you attended an anti-abortion rally last night in Wichita —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — called Unite the Light: Prayer for Value Them Both. What happened there, and who spoke?

AMY LITTLEFIELD: You know, it was a prayer vigil, so they had spread out all along the sidewalk in front of a large Christian church here in Wichita, holding “vote yes” signs. And it was interesting, Juan. If I had to guess, you know, standing there on the sidewalk, watching the cars go by, which side this was going to go, just based on people’s reactions to these signs — you know, some of them were honking in support and seemed excited about the “vote yes” position, and then some were yelling profanity out their window or booing.

So, what’s really clear is that this amendment is deeply present here, right? You can’t go a block without seeing a lawn sign on one way or the other. The second I crossed the state line into Kansas, I saw a Rosie the Riveter sign that said “Trust women. Vote no on 2.” It’s absolutely everywhere.

And I think what’s really encouraging is that there has been an enormous grassroots mobilization, that might just tip the odds that are stacked against the abortion rights position here, that might just be enough. I mean, I think it’s going to be very close. But I think abortion rights supporters here are cautiously optimistic that the huge upswelling of outrage and political participation from people who have never been involved in that kind of activism before will be enough to tip the balance in their favor, even though Republicans have really tried hard to stack the deck against abortion rights in this vote.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of Kansas not only for Kansans, but, as you describe, the sea of anti-abortion states around? The thousands of women who are coming from all over the Midwest, for example, in Texas, as well, other places in the Midwest, would then not have Kansas to come to.

AMY LITTLEFIELD: Absolutely, Amy. I mean, I spent the day at Dr. George Tiller’s former clinic in Wichita yesterday. And the last patient of the day, who left in the late afternoon, you know, I spoke with her and asked her where she was coming from. And she said, “Oh, I’m” — I said, “Do you have a long ride home?” She said, “Oh, just to Oklahoma City.” Well, Oklahoma City is two-and-a-half hours, maybe three, you know, depending on traffic, from Wichita, OK? But she had been talking to women in the waiting areas, to other people who were there that day for their abortions, to people who had had to pay $400 a piece just to fly into town, people who had gotten in a car that morning — there were people there who had gotten in the car that morning, driven — at 2 a.m., driven from Dallas, a patient who drove from Houston, which is nine hours.

And what I want to emphasize, Amy, is these are the patients who made it that day, right? And what staff were really trying to get across is, this is not the common experience; this is the anomaly. The patients who make it to their appointment and have their abortion, at this point it is so hard to get access that those patients are the exception and not the rule.

And what I — towards the middle of the day, when all the patients had been checked in, I went over to the desk, and I asked the staff, “What about the patients who didn’t make it here today?” There were seven patients — 20 people who were seen, seven patients who just had no-showed, meaning they had called them and said, you know, “Hello. You know, why didn’t you come to your appointment?” and they hadn’t got — they hadn’t reached anyone. They just didn’t know what had happened to these patients. And those patients were supposed to be coming from Dallas; Tulsa; a town in Oklahoma that’s four hours away; Richmond, Texas, nine hours away; Arkansas. And two of those patients were right up against the limit, the state limit. They were not probably going to be able to get an abortion unless they could travel even further, to Colorado or New Mexico. So, those are two people who are staying pregnant.

Those are the stories that we’re not hearing. We are hearing the stories of people — and staff, I should add, because Trust Women has a clinic in Oklahoma, where abortion is banned, and has been for some time. Their staff are making that same journey as the patients, traveling to be able to provide care to that influx of patients from other states.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, of course, we’re going to continue to follow this. And as we speak, in Kentucky, a state court of appeals has reinstated an abortion trigger ban and a law that makes abortion a felony to perform. Amy Littlefield, we’ll be coming back to you soon. Amy Littlefield is a journalist who focuses on reproductive healthcare, abortion access correspondent for The Nation, former Democracy Now! producer, joining us today from Wichita, Kansas.

Next up, as New York, California, Illinois declare health emergencies over monkeypox, we’ll speak to Steven Thrasher. His new book, out today, The Viral Underclass. Stay with us.

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