It was a stunning political turn following a dramatic legal development in America: Less than six weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court revoked a 49-year national right to abortion—overturning 1972’s Roe v. Wade in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization—the conservative state of Kansas was the site of an overwhelming political victory for abortion rights. In an August 2 referendum, voters rejected a proposed amendment to the constitution of their state that would have ended the right to abortion there. The result was decisive—59 percent voting against the amendment and only 41 percent in favor, with 95 percent of the results reported. For an anti-abortion movement that worked to secure the overturning of Roe for half a century, Dobbs was its triumph; yet polls now show most Americans oppose the decision—and Democrats are eager to talk about new Republican restrictions on abortion as this fall’s U.S. midterm elections approach. How are the politics of this issue shifting?
Bill Scher is an American journalist and a contributor to The Washington Monthly. Scher says it’s too soon to gauge the full consequences of the Kansas referendum—or the broader effects on U.S. politics that Dobbs might be having—but he sees a clear potential for the abortion-rights movement to gain greater political advantage over the coming months, especially with so many Americans viewing new Republican restrictions on abortion as extreme. In fact, Scher thinks the United States could be entering a period when abortion becomes less of a polarizing issue in the U.S., consistent with most Americans’ belief that the procedure should remain legal within certain restrictions. In the immediate future, Scher says, Dobbs has set up a highly unusual dynamic for the midterms—with Republicans now out of power in Congress and the White House yet responsible for a massive disruption to politics and policy on an issue that will be weighing on voters’ minds.
Graham Vyse: What brought about this referendum in Kansas, in the first place?
Bill Scher: In 2015, Kansas’ Republican-controlled state legislature passed a law that would have banned so-called “dilation and evacuation” procedures used in late-term abortions. But Kansas’ Supreme Court struck down the law and interpreted the state constitution as protecting a basic right to abortion. Certainly, many abortion regulations remain on the books in Kansas—the procedure isn’t permitted after 22 weeks of pregnancy unless the life or health of the mother is threatened, there are parental-consent requirements for minors, and there’s no taxpayer funding for abortion at all—but, according to the Court, the law of the State of Kansas protected a basic right to end a pregnancy.
Republicans in Kansas weren’t happy with that decision, so they decided last year to put a state constitutional amendment on the ballot—as a referendum—to supersede the state Supreme Court ruling and allow the legislature to ban abortion. They scheduled the referendum for this month; abortion-rights advocates believe Republicans thought the date would be advantageous, because it was the same day as the state’s primary elections—and primaries in Kansas don’t usually bring out many Democratic voters, since there aren’t often important, contested Democratic primaries there. The Republicans may also have believed that many younger Kansans and college students—who are likely to be left-leaning voters—would be away in the summertime. What Republicans obviously didn’t know last year was that the U.S. Supreme Court would have overturned Roe v. Wade, raising the stakes of the issue—especially for abortion-rights supporters.
This was the first real test of abortion politics after Roe’s overturn, and the two sides were well-matched and well-funded, yet the vote wasn’t close. In the end, with more than 921,000 votes cast in the referendum, 59 percent of voters supported the abortion-rights side while 41 percent chose the anti-abortion side. The abortion-rights voters included independents and Republicans; it was a unifying vote that transcended the polarization we often say is plaguing America. Keep in mind that Kansas isn’t a swing state. It’s not evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. It has a Democratic governor, but it’s a Republican state that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump and sends Republican senators to Washington, D.C.
Vyse: How did the public debate over this referendum play out?