TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Abortion opponents are moving with unusual speed to put a proposed anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution on the ballot, fearing a COVID-19 outbreak could thwart them if they delay action even for a few weeks.
The proposed amendment would overturn a Kansas Supreme Court decision in 2019 that declared access to abortion a “fundamental” right under the state constitution’s Bill of Rights. It would declare that there is no Kansas constitutional right to abortion and preserve the Legislature’s power to regulate abortion.
House and Senate committees had hearings on separate but identical versions of the proposed amendment Friday, at the end of the first week of the Legislature’s annual 90-day session. One or both chambers could debate the measure later this week.
The push for quick action reflects abortion foes’ eagerness to take advantage of election results last year that left Republican supermajorities in both chambers more conservative. They also want to launch a campaign to counter messages that the amendment would mean an outright abortion ban. The pandemic has created a sense of urgency—and a fear that a COVID-19 outbreak at the Statehouse is all but inevitable.
Abortion opponents already have an example of the pandemic upending their plans. The same proposed amendment failed narrowly last year in the House, and anti-abortion groups were working on getting a few lawmakers to switch to yes when the COVID-19 pandemic reached the state in March. The Legislature shortened its session, and abortion foes didn’t get the chance, preventing voters from deciding the amendment’s fate last year.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of whether we’ll be able to have a full session,” said Jeanne Gawdun, lobbyist for Kansans for Life, the most influential anti-abortion group at the Statehouse.
Abortion rights supporters already are arguing that the proposed amendment is a major step toward a state ban on abortion.
The measure says that the Legislature could regulate abortion “to the extent permitted” by the U.S. Constitution, meaning it would depend on U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Abortion rights supporters anticipate that the high court, with three appointees of President Donald Trump solidifying a conservative majority, will overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision protecting abortion rights.
“We’re concerned because we can see the writing on the wall,” Rachel Sweet, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood Great Plains, told a House committee.
But anti-abortion groups and legislators argue that past U.S. Supreme Court decisions show that overturning Roe v. Wade far from a given. And they said they’re simply trying to preserve restrictions that have passed with bipartisan support from future court challenges, including clinic regulations, a 24-hour waiting period and a requirement that most minors notify a parent or guardian.
“We have to walk them (voters) through, ’No, this is not a ban. All it does is allow the Legislature to do what it has always done,” said Brandi Jones, advocacy director for the anti-abortion Family Policy Alliance of Kansas. “It’s a more complicated message.”