Kansas fight over abortion has debate turned 'on its head'

Kansas fight over abortion has debate turned 'on its head'

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators considering a proposed amendment to the state constitution on abortion are raising the spectre of women being forced back into going to unsafe and unclean “back alley” clinics if their measure does not pass.

But in a twist away from what's typical in such debates, anti-abortion lawmakers were making the argument Thursday as the House gave first-round approval to the proposed amendment. The measure would overturn a Kansas Supreme Court decision last year declaring access to abortion a “fundamental right” under the state's Bill of Rights.

In making their case for a measure aimed at ensuring that the Republican-controlled Legislature keeps its long-standing power to limit abortion, supporters have appropriated language often used by abortion rights backers to fight proposed restrictions. Anti-abortion groups argue that without restrictions, clinics will return to being unsafe.

Abortion rights supporters find the argument ironic — and grating — after arguing for decades that women were forced to undergo abortions in unsafe conditions when terminating a pregnancy wasn't legal. They contend the amendment eventually will lead to an abortion ban — and return to the conditions that abortion opponents are claiming they want to prevent.

“Taking that pro-choice argument and flipping it on its head to suit the anti-choice argument — it really muddies the water,” said Julie Burkhart, CEO of the Trust Women Foundation, which operates a Wichita clinic that performs abortion.

The proposed amendment cleared the Senate last week, so House approval would put the question on the ballot in the state's August primary, when approval by a simple majority of voters would change the state constitution. However, supporters didn't yet appear Thursday to have the two-thirds majority in the House they will need to pass it.

“Isn't the thought of unregulated abortion repugnant to everyone in this chamber?" said Rep. Susan Humphries, a Wichita Republican, who led anti-abortion House members in the debate.

The vote Thursday was 80-41, and set up another final vote Friday in the House. The amendment's backers will need 84 of 125 votes to pass it then, and they were working to bring reluctant lawmakers on board.

Republicans hold exactly 84 seats, but four of them broke with their GOP colleagues to vote no Thursday. Four Democrats did not vote, but House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat, said he believes none of them would have voted yes.

U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, a Democrat representing the Kansas side of the Kansas City area in Congress, even jumped in,tweeting a 30-second ad showing her wearing pink boxing gloves with Planned Parenthood logos. Davids is former mixed-martial arts fighter.

“Make no mistake, this is a political attack on our fundamental political rights that will set Kansas back decades,” she said in the ad.

Yet anti-abortion lawmakers and groups said they were confident about Friday's vote.

“It's simply about letting the people decide," said Brittany Jones, advocacy director for the conservative Family Policy Alliance of Kansas. “This is our No. 1 issue. A vote against this is a vote against life.”

Under the proposed amendment, the Legislature could restrict abortion “to the extent permitted” by federal court decisions, including the historic Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 legalizing abortion across the nation.

Rep. Susan Concannon, a Republican from western Kansas, said the measure is not even “baby steps” toward a ban.

Instead, supporters said, they're protecting regulations, such as a 24-hour waiting period and parental notification for most minors, to protect patients. They believe the Kansas Supreme Court's ruling signals that it would overturn most or even all of the raft of restrictions enacted over the past decade.

Abortion opponents in Kansas have long sought to blunt criticism of their proposals as a potential attacks on women's rights by having women lead the push for them in the Legislature. They've even labeled their latest measure the “Value Them Both” amendment to declare that they are also concerned about ensuring that women receive good and well-regulated health care.

And Rep. Renee Erickson, another Wichita Republican who backs the proposed amendment, said she recently received an email from someone who served as a student nurse in the 1950s. Erickson said the writer remembered caring for a 16-year-old girl who'd died after “a back alley abortion,” adding, “the stench coming from her wound lingers with me today.”

“This should never have happened, and we should make sure that it never happens again, not in Kansas, not on our watch,” Erickson said. “This resolution before us does not restrict a woman's ability to choose an abortion, just that if she does, she deserves basic safeguards for her health and well-being.”

But abortion rights advocates have argued for years that terminating a pregnancy became a safe medical procedure — and statistically safer than childbirth — after it became legal. Rep. Stephanie Clayton, a Kansas City-area Democrat, said she agreed with Erickson's remarks about preventing back alley abortions, “which is why I will vote no.”

“I did find it a bit ironic,” Clayton said after the debate. “This does lead to a ban — if nothing else, further restrictions — leading to more back alley abortions.”


Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna

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