Jan 23, 2020 7:00 PM

Abortion rights backers unsure of strategy in Kansas fight

Posted Jan 23, 2020 7:00 PM
Rep. Jim Ward photo -Kansas News Service
Rep. Jim Ward photo -Kansas News Service

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Abortion rights backers grappled with how to derail a proposed anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution as abortion foes marked Wednesday’s anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision by advancing two versions of the proposal in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Top GOP lawmakers want to amend the state constitution to overturn a Kansas Supreme Court decision last year declaring access to abortion a “fundamental” right under the state constitution. The amendment would declare that the Kansas Constitution does not “secure” a right to abortion and allow legislators to regulate it as far as federal court decisions allow.

House and Senate committees approved separate but identical versions of the measure Wednesday, and either chamber or both could debate them next week.

Abortion rights lawmakers are wrestling with a dilemma: Do they bet on the measure being objectionable enough to fail if it’s left alone, or do they try to rewrite it to make it more palatable — and risk helping it get on the ballot?

“I’m not sure what the strategy is,” said state Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat.

The debate played out as dozens of abortion opponents came to the Statehouse to mark the 47th anniversary of the Roe decision in 1973, which legalized abortion across the nation. Since then, the court has allowed states to enact restrictions if they don’t put an “undue burden” on women seeking abortions.

Abortion opponents have long hoped that the nation’s highest court will overturn Roe. But the Kansas Supreme Court decision means that the state’s courts could invalidate restrictions — including a raft enacted in Kansas over the past decade — no matter what the U.S. Supreme Court has decided or says in the future.

Top Republicans are seeking to put a proposed amendment on the ballot in the August primary election, when the electorate generally leans to the right and anti-abortion groups believe they have the best chance of passage.

“We do have a sense of urgency,” said Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican.

The actions of the GOP-led committees Wednesday were in keeping with the strategy of anti-abortion groups. They want their proposal to pass “clean” of changes and portray it as restoring lawmakers’ long-standing power to regulate abortion.

Supporters will need two-thirds majorities in both chambers for proposed constitutional amendment to go on the statewide ballot. Then, a simple majority of voters must approve it.

Abortion rights advocates argue that however the proposed amendment is worded, it represents a step toward an eventual attempt to ban abortion.

Yet some abortion rights lawmakers said they couldn’t formulate a good strategy on stopping a proposed constitutional amendment until they saw its exact language. Anti-abortion groups unveiled it last week.

“It’s kind of new to us, which way they were going to go,” said House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, another Wichita Democrat.

The votes in committee came after Robin Clements, an abortion rights lobbyist, suggested to Democratic senators in a meeting Tuesday that they have a better chance of preventing the measure from clearing the Legislature if they don’t try to rewrite it to make it less objectionable.