Pro-life legislators and advocacy groups in Kansas, joined by the state’s Catholic bishops, are working to send a constitutional amendment to voters to counter the Kansas Supreme Court’s declaration that abortion is a constitutional right.
Kansas House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins (R-Wichita), said the amendment is a top priority for the legislature.
“This is not going to be about banning abortions. It’s going to be about putting it back where it’s supposed to be, and that is with the legislature,” he told the Associated Press.
The Kansas Catholic Conference in October 2019 launched a petition to support a state constitutional amendment.
“The immediate priority for all Kansans concerned with protecting the lives of (preborn) children, as well as pregnant women from an unscrupulous abortion industry, is to pass a state constitutional amendment,” Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas said.
The amendment effort responds to the April 2019 decision of the Kansas Supreme Court. In a 6-1 ruling, the court blocked a 2015 law banning the use of the dilation-and-extraction abortion procedure. Known by its critics as “dismemberment abortion,” the procedure uses surgical equipment, suction devices and other equipment to take apart the living unborn child and remove it from the mother’s womb.
For the first time, the Kansas court ruled that provisions of the state constitution dating back to 1859 extends to a “natural right of personal autonomy” regarding abortion.
The Kansas Catholic Conference has decried the ruling as “a grotesque caricature of emancipation.”
“There is no way to sanitize the barbaric procedure defended by the Court,” the conference said in April 2019. “The issue under review—live dismemberment abortion–is a most excruciating death. The non-anesthetized severing of a living child’s arms and legs and subsequent removal of the body is beyond our comprehension. Legally disguised as healthcare, this procedure kills an average of twelve children each week in Kansas.”
A two-thirds majority in both of Kansas’ legislative chambers is needed in order to add a referendum to the ballot. Voters would then have to pass the proposal by a majority vote.
Kansans for Life is drafting language for such an amendment.
Jeanne Gawdun, a lobbyist for Kansans for Life, sees the amendment as an important step for the pro-life movement, rather than simply passing an abortion ban through the state legislation.
“Bans on abortion in other states have not been successful. Even in some of the most pro-life states, they’ve not been successful, and in states where one has passed, they’re being tied up in court,” she told the Associated Press. “You’re effectively not achieving anything.”
Gawdun defends an incremental strategy to limit abortion, citing a 40% drop from 1999, when a peak of 12,400 abortions were performed. In 2018, that number had fallen to about 7,000.
Pat Goodson, founder of Right to Life of Kansas, disagrees with this incrementalist approach. He is among the school of pro-life advocates who say that a constitutional amendment regulating but not banning abortion is a step in the wrong direction, because it would effectively mean that the constitution allows abortion.
Goodson told a committee considering the amendment that it “denies the humanity of unborn humans and jeopardizes the rights of all humans.”
In Kansas, abortion is not legal after the 22nd week of a pregnancy. Parents must be informed if their minor child is seeking an abortion, and they must give consent to the procedure.
Gov. Laura Kelly of Kansas, a pro-abortion rights Democrat, won the 2018 election. She has the power to appoint justices to the seven-member Kansas Supreme Court. Her first nominee, Justice Evelyn Wilson, assumed office in December 2019. Wilson’s nomination was opposed by pro-life groups.
State courts can declare legal abortion to be a right under the state constitution. Even if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade and similar precedents that mandate legal abortion across the country, these decisions will likely create binding precedent at the state level.
Elise Higgins, vice president of the pro-abortion rights Kansas Abortion Fund, told the Associated Press that if voters pass a constitutional amendment rejecting a right to abortion, “then the minute Roe v. Wade is undermined or overturned, people in Kansas will lose their right to abortion, period.”
Pro-life lawmakers in the Iowa legislature are also pushing for a constitutional amendment saying there is no right to abortion in the state constitution.
Alabama and West Virginia have already amended their constitutions to prevent state supreme courts from interpreting them to find a right to abortion. In 2020, Louisiana residents will vote whether to amend their constitution to clarify that does not recognize abortion as a right.