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Abortion Opponents Divided On Best Way To Undo Kansas Supreme Court Ruling

Chris Neal
Kansas News Service
A roadside sign in rural Kansas.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Abortion opponents appear divided on the best strategy to overcome the Kansas Supreme Court's ruling that the state constitution guarantees a right to the procedure.

Two legislative committees, one most recently on Wednesday, have now recommended lawmakers take up the issue after they return in January. The stakes run high. Anti-abortion forces worry the ruling will knock down dozens of abortion restrictions already in Kansas law.

The divide comes over how far a proposed amendment should go. At a hearing Wednesday, some advocates said the state should approve what’s called a “personhood amendment” aimed at banning all abortions in Kansas.

“What the personhood amendment says is that we recognize the humanity of the unborn child from their earliest biological beginning,” said Bruce Garren, the chairman of Personhood Kansas.

Supporters of that approach contend that other strategies don’t go far enough. Garren said other responses would mire state abortion restrictions in ongoing legal fights.

Pat Goodson, a former lobbyist and founding member of Right to Life of Kansas, said lawmakers shouldn’t pursue any response that would allow some abortions to continue.

“I oppose any measure which would permit the taking of an innocent human life,” she said in testimony delivered to lawmakers. “A personhood amendment is the only way to legally counteract the evil of abortion.”

Some of the state’s largest groups fighting abortion want a simpler path, reversing the Supreme Court’s ruling by changing the Kansas Constitution to clarify it does not include a right to abortion.

Former state lawmaker Chuck Weber is now executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference. He likes the idea of a personhood amendment, but said it’s not a practical response.

“A personhood amendment just simply has no chance,” Weber said. “We live in a real world, and it’s not going to happen.”

A constitutional amendment is a high bar to overcome. It takes approval from two-thirds of both the Kansas House and Senate. Then the issue would go on a ballot for a statewide vote.

Even if a personhood amendment passed, it likely wouldn’t survive a court challenge, said Jeanne Gawdun, director of government relations with Kansans for Life.

“We’re interested in making a difference, and not just a statement,” Gawdun said.

Gawdun said lawmakers have made a difference by approving restrictions that reduced the number of abortions in Kansas. An amendment clarifying there’s no right to abortion could preserve those laws and the ability for lawmakers to approve more of them in the future.

A committee Wednesday recommended lawmakers take up the issue over the objections of Democrats on the panel.

Democratic Rep. Stephanie Clayton, who supports abortion rights, cast a constitutional amendment as radical. If voters don’t like court rulings, she said, they can ultimately vote judges off the bench during retention elections.

“You can’t always come crying to the Legislature asking them to change the constitution,” she said. “You vote out your justices. Those systems are already in place.”

Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which provides abortion and other health services, also said lawmakers shouldn’t take up the issue. Lobbyist Rachel Sweet said any amendment on abortion would discriminate against women.

“The fundamental right to personal and bodily autonomy is too critical to be stripped from our state constitution,” she said, “or put to a popular vote.”

The divide among anti-abortion forces over how to proceed with a constitutional amendment adds more difficulty to an already complex issue. The split  could bog down the discussion or ultimately cause a constitutional amendment to fail.

“One could outweigh the other, or they could just…hurt each other’s causes,” Republican Rep. John Barker said. “But, both sides may agree to a compromise.”

Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda or email skoranda (at) ku (dot) edu.

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

As the Kansas News Service managing editor, I help our statewide team of reporters find the important issues and breaking news that impact people statewide. We refine our daily stories to illustrate the issues and events that affect the health, well-being and economic stability of the people of Kansas. Email me at skoranda@kcur.org.
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