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Why a bid to strip away abortion rights in Kansas backfired

You know something’s up when restriction fails in a Republican state.

By Emily Tamkin

On Tuesday 2 August, Kansas voters rejected a referendum that would have removed the right to an abortion from the state constitution. This referendum was the first major test of support for stripping away abortion rights since the US Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade in June. It failed.

The referendum was held during a primary in a state with more registered Republicans than Democrats. Voters who are not registered with either party cannot vote in the primary electionsthough they could vote on the ballot referendum, which meant independents would have to remember to turn out for an election when they’d have normally stayed at home. The former president Donald Trump won the state handily in 2020. The referendum still failed.

Those working in favour of the referendum tried to say that it wouldn’t ban abortion – it would simply hand over the regulation of abortion access to the Republican-controlled legislature. A right-wing firm pushed out messages saying that voting “yes” would “give women a choice”. The referendum still failed.

In the immediate term, this means that people in Kansas seeking abortions up to 22 weeks of pregnancy (with some restrictions) can still get them without being impeded by state law. It also means that women in surrounding states, which have largely banned abortion, will be able to come to Kansas. That means the procedure will remain accessible to many more people than had the referendum passed.

What does this mean for American politics in the slightly longer term? Questions of abortion rights are due to be asked explicitly on ballot papers in some states this fall; in Michigan and Vermont, for example, voters will decide whether to add amendments to their state constitutions to protect abortion rights.

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Democrats more generally might hope to make the midterms about abortion, though it is yet to be seen whether voters will privilege the right to an abortion over inflation, or unemployment numbers, or any of the other considerations they may have when heading into their polling stations. Much depends on the extent to which campaigners for abortion rights learn the lessons from Kansas.

The organisers who defeated the referendum there have stressed that to win they reached out across other ideological lines. We will see whether it is possible to replicate that success in other states, each with its own constellation of politics, policies and precedents. We will see whether this galvanises Congress to pass a federal law protecting abortion rights, or whether Washington will continue to leave the right to abortion access to state and local organisers.

But whatever happens next, what took place on Tuesday was this: voters in a red, Republican state were presented with an opportunity to limit abortion rights. They rejected it. There were those who tried to downplay what the referendum for which they were campaigning would mean, just as there are those who have pretended that overturning Roe vs Wade isn’t a seismic change in American life. The voters of Kansas saw through this. 

There will be other attacks on the right to reproductive choice in this country. Some of them will succeed. There will be times when people do not come together to protect this right. But on Tuesday in Kansas, they did.

[See also: Judith Butler on Roe vs Wade, trans rights and the war on education]

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