In test case for US, Kansas puts abortion on the ballot
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Campaign signs dot the tree-lined streets of the affluent Kansas town of Leawood, as the Midwestern state prepares to hold the first major vote on abortion since the US Supreme Court ended the national right to the procedure.
Kansans head to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to change the traditionally conservative state's constitution to remove language guaranteeing the right to an abortion.
Those in favor of the change -- "Yes" voters -- say it would allow legislators to regulate the procedure without judicial interference.
"It just simply restores our ability to have a conversation," says Mackenzie Haddix, a spokeswoman for the Value Them Both campaign seeking an end to the protections -- which stem from a 2019 decision by the Kansas supreme court.
"The people of Kansas can then come together... to reach consensus," she told AFP at a rally Saturday morning.
Banning abortion is not the official goal of Value Them Both.
But in the opposing camp, activists see the campaign as a barely-masked bid to clear the way for an outright ban by the Republican-dominated state legislature -- following in the footsteps of at least eight other US states since the Supreme Court's ruling in June.
Advocates look nervously to neighboring Oklahoma and Missouri which have implemented near-total bans -- the latter making no exceptions for rape or incest -- while fellow Midwestern state Indiana passed its own rigid ban on Saturday.
And in Kansas itself, a conservative state legislator this year introduced a bill that would ban abortion without exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the mother, while a state senator was quoted as telling supporters he ultimately hopes to enact a law on "life starting at conception."
Currently, abortion is legal in Kansas up to 22 weeks, with parental consent required for minors.
"It really does come down to the amendment taking away that right to personal autonomy that all Kansans enjoy," Ashley All, a spokeswoman for the "No" campaign Kansans for Constitutional Freedom (KCF), told AFP.
"And it is a right that we are able to make decisions about our bodies, about our families, about our future, without government interference," she said.
- First test -
The vote, scheduled to coincide with primary elections in Kansas, will be the first chance for US voters to register their views on abortion since the Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.
Other states including California and Kentucky are set to vote on the issue in November -- at the same time as midterm elections to Congress in which both Republicans and Democrats hope to mobilize their supporters nationwide around the question of abortion.
Anne Melia, a volunteer with the pro-abortion rights KCF, went door-to-door in Leawood Thursday night to make her case.
"I don't think the government should be telling women what they should do," the 59-year-old explained as she made her way across manicured lawns festooned with rival "Vote No" and "Vote Yes" signs.
Leawood resident Pat Boston, 85, said she had already voted early -- and marked "No" on her ballot.
In the same neighborhood, 43-year-old Christine Vasquez said she planned to vote "Yes," in the hope of seeing a vote on an abortion ban in the future.
"I'm just looking for it to come back to the vote for legislators and constituents," she told AFP. "I would vote for no abortions, I believe that life starts at conception."
- 'Kansas is unique' -
The outcome in Kansas could mean a boost or a blow to either side of the highly charged US abortion debate -- and the eyes of the nation will be fixed on the state on Tuesday.
Across the United States, Democrats lean strongly in favor of abortion rights while conservatives generally favor at least some restrictions.
But the picture in Kansas reveals a more complex political reality.
The state leans heavily Republican, and has not voted for a Democrat for president since 1964.
But Kansas' most populous county elected a Democrat to the US House in 2018, and the state governor, Laura Kelly, is a Democrat.
And when it comes to views on abortion, a 2021 survey from Fort Hays State University found that fewer than 20 percent of Kansas respondents agreed that abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape or incest.
Half believed Kansas should place no restrictions on the circumstances under which a woman can get an abortion.
And so Melia, who quit her environmental consulting job to devote more time to political volunteering, is not sure what to expect Tuesday.
"People want to oversimplify flyover country," as the US Midwest is somewhat derisively nicknamed, she said.
"I happen to think Kansas is unique."