May 6, 2022

Growing up in Kansas in the Eighties, nobody could have convinced me that the state would one day become the protector of abortion rights in the Midwest. Traditionally a bright Red stronghold, Kansas has been the site of massive, and sometimes violent, anti-abortion protests. To me, it felt like the majority of Kansans longed for a time when Christianity controlled the state, when men had dominion over women’s lives, when political disagreements were settled with bloodshed. But now, in 2022, Kansas offers something unexpected: hope for pro-choice Americans.

If Roe v Wade is overturned, as Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s draft suggests it will be, abortion rights will again be decided on a state-by-state basis. Several states have legislation already waiting for such an opportunity to criminalise procuring, assisting with or providing an abortion. Doctors, patients and assistants would all be subject to heavy penalties and time in prison. Certain states, like Texas and Missouri, even want to make a crime out of crossing state lines to obtain an abortion where it is still legal.

But the demise of Roe v Wade has always been a question of not if but when. Democrats have used the language of abortion rights to attract votes and funds for decades, but they have time and again failed to pursue the legislative action that would codify those rights into law. Even with their majority in the House of Representatives and Senate, and a Democrat in the White House, it seems unlikely that any move will be made in this direction before the midterm elections in November. With abortion rights left in the hands of the courts, it was only a matter of time before the balance of power between Left and Right was reshuffled, and we ended up where we are now.

Which is why, paradoxically, I believe the only hope for reproductive rights in the United States is pro-choice Republicans.

To which a lot of East Coast Democrats might reply: is there any such thing? But I have seen my home state of Kansas shift from a place fiercely divided by the abortion debate to an unlikely safe haven of reproductive rights for the region — thanks to a handful of Kansas Republicans who have consistently broken with party leadership to keep abortion safe and legal.

It hasn’t been easy. Anti-abortion protestors have long been active Kansas, but in 1991, when I was a young teenager, the newly minted Operation Rescue upped the ante — guided by the slogan: “If you believe abortion is murder, act like it’s murder”. Responding to its organised campaign, Summer of Mercy, thousands of protestors descended on Wichita, Kansas, accusing the city’s most visible abortion doctor George Tiller of being a “baby killer”. They harassed clinic workers, patients, and pro-choice activists. The authorities, meanwhile, were remarkably hands-off. In fact, they were so courteous that the Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry praised the Wichita Police Department in the press.

The protests went on for six weeks, during which they dominated regional media and spread through smaller towns in the area. The animosity, and the rhetoric, escalated. Operation Rescue declared that it was waging a “Holy War” against a group of heathens who were undertaking a “holocaust of the unborn”. At the time, the divide between religion and politics was starting to disappear; Evangelicals swarmed to the Republican party. And during that Summer of Mercy, the Methodist church I attended as a teenager began to preach about the sin of homosexuality, the abomination of abortion, and the Satanic forces in Washington DC. Before that, we may have gotten some light “the man is the head of the household” nonsense, but it was mostly sermons about loving thy neighbour and the Good Samaritan.

When the out-of-state organisers left, the tension did not dissipate. Clinics in the region were subject to physical attacks and vandalism. In 1993 there was an assassination attempt on Dr. Tiller. He was shot five times. Hit only in the arms, he went back to work the next day. But another attempt, in 2009, killed him; the assassin, Scott Roeder, would claim to have been radicalised during the Summer of Mercy.

These extremists did not represent Kansans, and they did not represent Republicans. But just as Democrats exploit the language of abortion rights, Republican politicians were — and sometimes still are — liable to use the inflammatory “baby killer” language of Operation Rescue to secure votes and donations, in this case from their most extreme religious followers. (If someone shot a doctor or burned down a clinic, these politicians would then distance themselves by professing a belief in non-violent action.)

Unlike Democrats, though, those Republicans have been solidifying their rhetoric with law. The Midwest in particular has, in the last 20 years, introduced more and more restrictions to abortion rights, shutting down clinics with nonsense regulations and shrinking the window of time in which women can pursue terminations of their pregnancies. Oklahoma, just south of Kansas, had 18 abortion clinics in 1982, but that number has dwindled over the years down to three. The decline has mostly been because of nuisance laws that demand unnecessary standards in clinics when it comes to staffing, equipment and physical location. The state has also passed a series of onerous laws regarding the treatment of patients, like requiring information about clients to be entered in an online health registry and requiring patients be falsely informed that the foetus can feel pain during the procedure.

Meanwhile Kansas has, for the most part, held firm. True, the authorities passed a series of laws in the early Nineties requiring parental notification and mandatory 24-hour waiting times between consultation and procedure. But the state legislature did not follow its neighbours in increasing wait times up to 72 hours or passing “heartbeat” laws that outlaw abortion after the sixth or eighth gestational week. Several Kansan Republican legislators have attempted, repeatedly, to bring in such changes. But, despite the fact that Republicans have almost always had a majority in the legislature, these bills frequently die quietly in committee or get shelved until the legislative term expires. And they fail not because of Democratic grandstanding, but largely because pro-choice Republicans use the rules of the legislature wisely.

Clinics in Wichita and the Kansas City suburbs have therefore become regional magnets, providing services for women from Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska faced with increasingly unreasonable obstacles to care. Two years ago, the number of out-of-state women receiving care in Kansas clinics outnumbered the patients from within the state. And, in 2019, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that abortion rights are guaranteed in Kansas’s constitution.

Since that ruling, some state Republican legislators have fought for an amendment, but it has consistently been members of their own party who have blocked this action. In the latest attempt to amend the constitution, four Republicans broke ranks to vote against the measure: 84 votes were needed to put the amendment on the upcoming ballot, and they ultimately only got 80. And while none of them are attending pro-choice rallies wearing Planned Parenthood t-shirts, these Republicans are in line with the voters of Kansas, 86% of whom do not think abortion should be made strictly illegal.

This reflects the reality in America more broadly. While at most 30% of Americans affiliated with the Republican party would consider themselves to be pro-choice, around 40% believe abortion should be legal in most cases. And so the Republican party is long overdue a reckoning with its own constituency; by pandering to extremists, conspiracy theorists and religious fundamentalists, it has left millions of Americans essentially politically homeless. Any harsh moves to the far-Right on the abortion issue is likely to alienate even more voters, even if it delights the party’s Evangelical fringe. 70% of Texans, for instance, already think the laws restricting abortion access to the first six weeks of pregnancy are too harsh. Only a very small percentage of voters will be satisfied with the further expansion of state control over the private familial and sexual decisions of the citizenry.

If the Republican party were to govern according to the beliefs and wishes of its electorate, it would be consistently against the eradication of abortion rights. Instead, it is letting the radical margins hijack the abortion debate. If it really does seek a “national settlement of the abortion issue”, as Justice Samuel Alito claims to, the Republican party should look to Kansas, which provides a blueprint. The stereotypical pro-choice activist may baulk at the idea that such a conservative state in such a religious region has become a bulwark against the erasure of reproductive rights. But it’s hardly a surprising turn of events: the state has, after all, seen some of the bloodiest results of this political debate.