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Kansas lawmakers can't ban abortions, so some want to give that power to local governments

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Rose Conlon
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Kansas News Service

With Senate Bill 65, Kansas joins several states where abortion opponents want to give local governments the authority to restrict or ban abortion.

WICHITA, Kansas — Kansas joins a handful of states debating the power of local governments to restrict abortion.

Legislation proposed this week seeks to give local governments the authority to ban abortion. That marked the second bill concerning abortion introduced by Kansas abortion opponents so far this legislative session after a landslide statewide referendum in favor of abortion rights last year.

Sen. Chase Blasi, a Wichita Republican, introduced the bill Thursday in the Committee on Federal and State Affairs. It would repeal a law that prohibits local governments from regulating abortion, so long as those regulations are “as stringent or more stringent” than state law.

“My bill opens a discussion about allowing Kansans to protect a culture of life within their own local community,” Blasi said in an email.

The bill itself wouldn’t implement any new abortion restrictions, and legal experts say it would have little immediate practical impact on abortion access. If local governments were to enact abortion limitations more restrictive than state law, they would likely be struck down in court due to a 2019 decision by the Kansas Supreme Court that found the state constitution protects the right to an abortion.

“Those restrictions would be unconstitutional,” Jeffrey Jackson, interim dean at Washburn University School of Law said. “From that perspective, this legislation doesn’t actually do anything.”

The bill places Kansas among several states now wrangling with questions around the extent to which local governments should have a say in abortion policy.

In neighboring Nebraska, five towns voted to ban abortion within city limits in November. In New Mexico, abortion rights supporters are seeking to bar municipalities from restricting abortion after one town passed an ordinance that prevents abortion clinics from operating. In Tennessee, a state with a near-total abortion ban, a bill would bar local governments from helping to fund abortion including through employee health benefits. Towns in Texas, Ohio and Louisiana already have local abortion restrictions on the books.

Those efforts are partially a reflection of fragmentation within the anti-abortion movement following the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade last year, said Mary Ziegler, a University of California-Davis law professor and historian of the movement.

“You have more homegrown strategies that can also lead to less practicality,” she said, “because you’re having legislators not really following a playbook that was designed to make the movement seem less extreme.”

Ziegler said that while local restrictions in states like Kansas — that have explicit constitutional protections for abortion rights — might not pass muster immediately, it’s possible they could have greater impact if abortion protections are eroded in the future.

“They have a longer end-game in mind,” she said. “While it’s true that they obviously face some real hurdles in introducing these ordinances, it’s a mistake to dismiss them at the same time.”

Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach, a Republican, said last week that he wants the state Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling that enshrined abortion rights. And while Republican lawmakers largely appear to be taking a cautious approach to abortion this legislative session, they’ve signaled interest in giving politicians more power over judicial selection, which could result in the makeup of future courts being less favorable to abortion rights.

Kansans for Life, a leading anti-abortion lobbying group in the state, said its attorneys had yet to review the proposed legislation and reiterated its interest in securing more funding for anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers.

“KFL’s priorities include promoting policies that steer resources to women facing unexpected pregnancies and help them make life-affirming decisions for themselves and their babies,” Jeanne Gawdun, a senior lobbyist, said in a statement.

Kansas abortion rights advocates said the bill blatantly disregarded Kansas voters, who in August overwhelmingly rejected a ballot measure that could have paved the way for an abortion ban.

“With every piece of anti-abortion legislation, these lawmakers are wasting the time and resources of their constituents who have already weighed in on the issue with clarity and resolve,” Zachary Gingrich-Gaylord, a spokesperson for Wichita clinic Trust Women, said in a statement.

Anamarie Rebori Simmons, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes, pointed to Blasi’s own constituents’ rejection of that ballot measure.

“Abortion rights won in a landslide, including in the home county of the bill’s sponsor,” she said in a statement. “Republican lawmakers should know better than to silence those they represent.”

Rose Conlon reports on health for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter at @rosebconlon or email her at conlon@kmuw.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Rose Conlon is a reporter based at KMUW in Wichita, but serves as part of the Kansas News Service, a partnership of public radio stations across Kansas. She covers health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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