How Kansas Kept Abortion Legal

How Kansas Kept Abortion Legal

When voters, even in a deep-red state, had the chance to decide for themselves, they protected abortion rights.

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The last patient of the day sat in a blue recliner in the recovery room at Trust Women in Wichita, Kan. It was late afternoon on August 1, one day before Kansans would vote on whether to keep the right to abortion in the Kansas Constitution. April, a patient from Oklahoma City, had spent much of the day lying on a leather couch, watching The Simpsons on her phone, waiting for her cervix to dilate so doctors could complete her abortion. Soon, she’d climb into her friend’s car to start the two-and-a-half-hour drive home. That didn’t seem so bad compared with the experiences of some of the women she’d met that day. One told April she had paid $800 to fly to Kansas with her husband. Another drove nine hours from Houston and had to be back there for work the next day. A third started out from Dallas at 2 am. Those were the ones who’d made it.

The ones who hadn’t made it to their appointments were from Tulsa, Dallas, and smaller towns in Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas—towns four or nine hours deep into a solid wall of more than half a dozen states where legal abortion is gone. Bans in Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi have forced patients into a bottleneck that ends in Kansas—a state with a history of violent anti-abortion activism, where “pro-life” conservatives have slashed public school budgets and bestowed tax cuts on the wealthy. Now it was the first state to hold a vote on abortion rights since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade with its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in June. The nation was watching. Pundits saw the vote as the first sign of whether the court’s decision might propel Democrats to victory in the November midterms. For staff at the clinic in Wichita, the stakes were more immediate. They wanted to keep their jobs. They wanted to be there for patients like April.

“I got an abortion here in 2013,” Samantha Treat, a nurse with a soothing voice in a pink flowered scrub cap, told April as she bent down to take her vitals. Treat was a mother of three going through a divorce when she found out she was pregnant with twins by a man she barely knew. Back then, Treat said, she had a choice: drive three hours to the nearest abortion clinic in Kansas City or wait a few weeks for the Wichita clinic to reopen after it had closed in 2009 following the murder of its owner, Dr. George Tiller.

“I chose to wait,” Treat said.

April didn’t reply. She hadn’t had the option of waiting. Oklahoma banned abortion in May. Now Kansas was voting on whether to allow its state legislature to follow suit. After she was cleared to go home, April sat watching the clinic’s security camera for the arrival of her friend’s SUV. It felt “insane” to her, she said, that anyone had a say in what people did with their own bodies. “No woman actually wants to go get an abortion—they have a reason why,” April said. “My reason: My son is just about to be 10 months old. I don’t need to have another newborn here anytime soon.”

“I know two of the girls I met in the waiting room with me, they were in the same situation,” she added. Then she walked out to the parking lot.

The amendment to strip the right to abortion from the Kansas Constitution was supposed to pass without a hitch. Republicans, who hold a supermajority in both chambers of the Kansas State Legislature, scheduled the vote for an August primary, when the turnout tends to be half of that in a general election. They knew that top-tier Republican contests in August would draw Republicans to the polls. Almost 30 percent of Kansas voters are unaffiliated, and many of them might not realize they can vote for a ballot measure even if they can’t vote for the party candidates. Voter suppression tactics like a deadline to register three weeks before the vote would disenfranchise young voters, who were more likely to oppose the amendment—including Samantha Treat’s 18-year-old son, who put a “No” bumper sticker on his car but failed to register in time to vote.

Then, five weeks before the August 2 election, the Supreme Court overturned Roe. In Kansas, voter registration surged 1,000 percent the day of the decision. In the five counties where the campaign Kansans for Constitutional Freedom was running the ground game, the number of volunteers knocking on doors to defeat the amendment quickly swelled tenfold to 500, according to spokesperson Ashley All. The campaign’s partner organizations were canvassing throughout the state, even deep in the areas that Donald Trump won by a wide margin in 2020. In Crawford County, in the southeastern corner of Kansas, a woman incensed by the overturn of Roe organized a few of her friends to knock on 1,600 doors in the waning weeks of the campaign. The “No” campaign triumphed there by 1,110 votes. People were designing their own lawn signs and ringing their neighbors’ doorbells. Supportive clergy delivered sermons on abortion; youth activists launched a horse-themed campaign called Vote Neigh.

“It was already a given that the majority of Kansans and the majority of Americans would oppose something like this,” says Rija Nazir, a 21-year-old senior at Wichita State University and the lead organizer for Vote Neigh. “Our job really was to find those people, let them know what was happening, and get them out to the polls.”

In an effort to reach Republican and unaffiliated voters, Kansans for Constitutional Freedom focused its messaging on the right of Kansans to make health care decisions “free from government interference.” “For a lot of people, abortion is not a partisan issue, even though it’s something that is always discussed in a partisan frame,” All says. The focus on “constitutional freedom,” she adds, was intended to account for voters’ complex feelings about abortion while encouraging them to vote “to protect the constitutional rights of women to make that decision themselves.” The name was vague enough that it left some voters confused about which side the campaign was on.

But the official message was far from the only one that reached voters. On a highway overpass, I saw a person standing with a hand-lettered poster that read: “Birth control is next. Vote no.” On a busy Wichita street, Kathy Griffin, a former liquor store owner, paced the sidewalk carrying a homemade sign and hollering, “Trust women—Jesus did!” at passing cars.

Something historic was brewing in Kansas. The pro-choice majority was finding its voice.

In a sprawling suburban neighborhood on the eastern edge of Wichita, two days before the vote, Mackenzi Truelove is determined to make it through the stretch of turf she’s been assigned. The temperature that day will reach 93 degrees, the kind of heat that drives people to seek out air-conditioning or the nearest lake. Truelove wears jean shorts and a yellow baseball cap with the mascot of her alma mater, Wichita State University—an anthropomorphized shock of wheat with burly biceps and a menacing sneer. The day before, carrying an umbrella in the rain, Truelove knocked on all 30 doors in another stretch of turf she’d been assigned, though only a handful of people answered.

“I just feel like I have to get out here,” says Truelove, who’s 30 and just graduated with a master’s degree in health care administration. She’s soft-spoken and at times seems nervous talking to strangers, but she’s out here because she’s horrified by the idea that her state might ban abortion. “Abortion access is a huge determinant of health,” she says. “It’s a huge determinant of the wellness of communities and the wellness of children and families.”

This afternoon she’s being shadowed by Courtney, a 24-year-old native Kansan who has never canvassed before. Courtney tells me that her Republican father has been phone-banking for the first time in his life, too—calling voters and telling them to preserve the right to abortion in the state.

No one answers at the first two doors in the quiet hamlet of cul-de-sacs and manicured lawns. At the third house, a man answers the door. Truelove asks for the woman whose name is on her list of voters identified as likely to oppose the anti-abortion amendment.

When Megan Dominguez appears at the door in pink sparkly sneakers, Truelove asks, “Can we count on you to vote no?”

“Definitely,” Dominguez says. “I will be there.”

Standing in the entrance to her home, Dominguez says she’s always been pro-choice, but the stakes feel higher now. Her sister lives in neighboring Oklahoma, where abortion is banned and where CVS has asked its pharmacists to verify that the prescriptions for drugs used to treat miscarriages, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and ectopic pregnancies won’t be used for abortions. “That made it even scarier and made it really hit home that, OK, we have to get out there and vote,” she says.

Dominguez is not the only pro-choice person who’s been transformed by this moment into an angrily pro-choice person. “I’ve never put a sign in my yard before,” says Stephanie Lebeda, a 46-year-old postal worker. She and her husband, Jon, have pitched a red sign on their lawn that reads “Vote no on 2, stand for liberty.”

“When Roe v. Wade was overturned, I was furious about it,” Stephanie says. “I actually shed a few tears about it, too.”

Before moving to the next house, we take refuge from the baking heat under the roof in front of the Lebedas’ garage. Jon comes running after us with three bottles of water. This small gesture of solidarity buoys the canvassers. They need the encouragement: Plenty of people don’t want to talk, or else tell the canvassers they’re voting against them.

“We already know how we’re going to vote,” one man says, answering the door in a T-shirt that reads “Jesus is my savior, Trump is my president.” Truelove doesn’t feel the need to ask which way that might be. At a house with three white cars in the garage, a woman tells us she’s voting yes; she attends an evangelical church where the preacher delivered a sermon in favor of the anti-abortion amendment. Churches, especially the Catholic dioceses, are the main financial backers of the amendment. But that doesn’t mean everyone in the pews agrees. We meet a lifelong Catholic who’s had no trouble ignoring the call to vote yes in her church bulletin. A young teacher whose minister spoke against abortion that morning tells us she hasn’t made up her mind yet but is leaning toward voting no. “Doesn’t mean I agree with abortion,” she says, “but I also don’t believe in making decisions for other people.”

We walk from one American-flag-adorned lawn to the next. With their beige siding and brick, the houses all start to look the same. But moments of hope punctuate the day.

“I’m voting no! No! No!” Yolanda Adams says, pausing to talk to the canvassers as she pulls out of her driveway. “It’s a woman’s body. If you’re telling me somebody gets raped and they’ve got to have a baby, that’s crazy.”

What is clear by the end of the afternoon is that people are taking this vote personally. A Black executive tells us that she sees in the Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe a potential threat to her own interracial marriage. A registered Republican who has been through fertility treatments says she’s been trying to get her mother to understand that banning abortion could impact those treatments, too.

But the most encouraging sign is the two young women I’m following, neither of whom has ever canvassed before, and the fact that, long after the sweat has started running into my eyes and I’ve begun staring longingly at strangers’ swimming pools, they keep going. It takes four hours, but we get to every door on the list.

The energy surrounding this moment reminded me of another grassroots uprising that transformed Kansas politics. In 1991, the militant anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue, led by Randall Terry, descended on Wichita and targeted Tiller’s clinic, one of the few refuges for patients who needed abortions later in pregnancy. The 46-day campaign of blockades and stadium-size gatherings resulted in over 2,600 arrests of anti-abortion demonstrators, who crawled under cars and blocked clinic entrances. At the behest of police, clinics agreed to shut down for a week. Chroniclers described the gathering as a kind of anti-abortion Woodstock—a moment when the anti-abortion movement reveled in its newfound power. “This was where the Kansas conservative movement got an idea of its own strength,” Thomas Frank wrote of the so-called Summer of Mercy in his 2004 book What’s the Matter With Kansas? “This was where it achieved critical mass.”

That critical mass would shift the direction of the Republican Party in the state for decades to come. Abortion opponents ran for state legislative posts and county precinct committee positions, taking over the party. In Sedgwick County, home to Wichita, abortion opponents—who had held less than half the positions in the county’s Republican leadership—surged to an 83 percent majority the year after the Summer of Mercy. The pattern was repeated across the country in the years and decades to come, as the religious right surged to power in states, wrapping an economic agenda that favored wealthy corporations in anti-abortion rhetoric to rile up a dedicated swath of the voting base. In Kansas, this formula would culminate in the 2010 election of Governor Sam Brownback, a Catholic zealot known for implementing tax cuts for the wealthy that paved the way for budget cuts that destroyed the state’s schools and highways.

Three decades after the Summer of Mercy, it’s now the Summer of Our Discontent—as the nonprofit news outlet the Kansas Reflector has called it—and cracks are forming in the conservative stranglehold on states like Kansas. I traveled to Wichita to find out whether the grassroots effort there to defeat the anti-abortion initiative might mark a turning point for the abortion rights movement in the way that the Summer of Mercy had been for abortion opponents 30 years earlier. Following the overturn of Roe v. Wade, abortion rights supporters across the country began channeling their outrage into grassroots political participation in numbers that were unprecedented. Was this the moment when the movement to restore access to abortion would achieve its own critical mass? In Wichita, I saw evidence all around me that it was.

On the day before the vote, the staff members open the phone lines at Trust Women in Wichita. Within an hour and a half, they’ve filled all the appointment slots for the following Monday. The number of calls has been soaring since Texas banned abortions after six weeks of pregnancy last September. Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe, the call volume has been as high as 1,000 a day, 100 an hour. In the past, Stormi Herbison would book about 12 appointments on a normal day. At 1 pm today, she and her colleagues have booked 52—for patients from states including Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas. The phone is still ringing.

“And they just don’t quit,” says Herbison, a tough-talking woman with purple streaks in her dark hair. A sign over her desk reads: “This girl runs on caffeine and sarcasm.” Herbison comes from a tiny town in Kansas; her mom still asks her if she’s gotten a real job. “I say, ‘No, I still like what I do, and I’m still employed, and you’re still not paying my bills, so don’t worry about it,’” she says. Herbison didn’t expect this job to last, but three years later, she’s still here. She likes helping patients who are struggling—like the 17-year-old from Texas she spoke with earlier this morning, who seemed to just need someone to tell her that her decision was OK.

As Herbison talks, she keeps her pale blue eyes focused on the screen in front of her, where she’s labeling documents that go into medical charts. The phone rings. Herbison exhales sharply and answers. It’s a patient who’s at three weeks, too early for an ultrasound to confirm the pregnancy is in her uterus. More patients have been calling too early to be seen, terrified they will lose their chance at an appointment if they wait. Herbison tells her to call back when she’s further along.

The next call is from Texas, a man who needs to book a surgical abortion for his wife. Herbison tells him to call back in a week, when they might have more appointments available. Thirty seconds later, the phone rings again. When Herbison tells the caller there aren’t any slots left for surgical abortions, the patient chooses a medication abortion instead. That way she can make an appointment 10 days from now, instead of having to try her luck with calling again. The address the patient gives is two hours away, in Edmond, Okla.

This system of opening the schedule a week ahead of time is the fairest option the staff have come up with under patently unfair circumstances—when patients desperate for appointments vastly outnumber the slots available. The need from Texas alone is unrelenting; Texas residents sought more than 55,000 abortions in 2020, the year before the six-week ban took effect. Kansas providers handled just 7,500 abortions that year. The Wichita clinic is undergoing a long-delayed renovation to expand its capacity, but it will still be able to handle only a fraction of the region’s need. The staff here didn’t cause this chaos, but they’re absorbing the suffering it’s led to. Herbison visibly struggles at times to keep the exhaustion out of her voice. She’s developed a way of coping with dry humor. In the recovery room, I hear Ashley Brink, the clinic director, commiserating with coworkers using a metaphor Herbison gave her to describe the feeling of being emotionally drained by the end of the day.

“It’s like those geckos that lose their tail or a leg, and you’re like, ‘Oh, there it goes,’ but then the next morning it starts to sprout a new one,” Brink says, laughing. “It might be a different color, it might be turned a different way, it might not work fully, but it can still show up and it can still be a gecko.”

“I’m the gecko!” her coworker laughs.

Brink wears a T-shirt that reads “Keep abortion local” and has a coat-hanger tattoo behind her ear and a papaya tattoo—the fruit is sometimes used in abortion training because it resembles a uterus—on her arm. She’s from a small town north of Topeka. In 2009, when an anti-abortion extremist shot and killed Dr. Tiller, people from her town celebrated. By then, Brink, whose mother raced cars and worked as a mechanic, had learned to think for herself. Now she runs Tiller’s clinic. And she wants people to understand that Kansas—the site of abolitionist John Brown’s uprising against slavery and of the Populist movement in the late 19th century—is every bit as capable of producing someone like her as it is someone like Sam Brownback.

“When people talk to me, they assume that I’m not from Kansas,” Brink says. But she’s the granddaughter of farmers, the daughter of Kansans. “I am who I am because of the people who raised me, and they raised me here in this state.” Brink believes Kansans support abortion rights, even if they’re often quiet about it because of the state’s anti-abortion history. “People here are pro-choice,” she says. We’re sitting in a small office with a bomb-threat response packet stationed by every phone.

Behind Brink, Dr. Christina Bourne, the clinic’s medical director, who recently relocated from California, sits on the floor, typing on her laptop. Just a year out of a medical residency, Bourne, an ebullient millennial who punctuates her sentences with “lol,” oversees the clinic staff with a contagious energy and warmth. Under her direction, back in the recovery room, workers move like a well-oiled machine, updating a giant whiteboard with patient information, sipping from super-size cans of Red Bull, releasing the tension with dark humor. During downtime, they muse about the next day’s vote, which will determine whether they will be able to continue this work that feels more like a calling.

“I don’t want to go back to knee replacements,” a nurse named Kate says as she drops white chalky tablets of misoprostol for medication abortions into orange bottles.

She and the rest of the staff are afraid that this scene, all of it, the mundane and the extraordinary, could end soon. It has felt that way for a long time.

Dr. George Tiller was a Republican, before the party changed. Born in Wichita in 1941, Tiller intended to become a dermatologist. But when his physician father, Jack Tiller, died in a plane crash in 1970, Tiller came home and discovered that his father had been offering abortions before it was legal to do so. After Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, patients asked George to offer abortions, like his father had—and he did. He remained a Republican until at least the early 1990s, when anti-abortion protesters were blockading his clinic.

“In August 1992, furious after four protesters chained themselves to his clinic gates, Tiller stormed out of the clinic dressed in a lab coat, walked to the gate and grabbed a microphone from a stunned TV camera operator,” journalists Judy Thomas and David Klepper wrote for The Kansas City Star. “Then he lashed out at President George H.W. Bush and the Republican Party, saying they were controlled by ‘religious fanatics.’”

Perhaps one of the few remaining standard-bearers for the dying breed of Republican that Tiller used to be is Jan Kessinger, a former management consultant and associate publisher of a produce industry newspaper, who spent four years in the Kansas legislature before his decision to defend abortion rights cost him his seat. I meet with Kessinger on my way out of town. He lives in a generous home in a cul-de-sac in the moneyed enclave of Overland Park, a suburb of Kansas City. Kessinger is a jovial man with a penchant for winking and an admiration for selective parts of Richard Nixon’s presidency. He leads me to an air-conditioned sun porch overlooking a garden with animal statues symbolizing his family members—the statue representing him is the lion. “Because I have courage,” he says sheepishly.

In 2016, under Governor Brownback, Kansas had become a laughingstock of late-night television. Brownback had slashed income taxes as part of an “experiment” that had defunded schools so severely that the courts declared it to be a violation of the state constitution. “The state was on the verge of bankruptcy,” Kessinger says. “I mean, we were a joke.” Kessinger ran for a seat in the legislature and won. Part of a cohort that opposed the Brownback experiment, he set about restoring income taxes for wealthy corporations like the Wichita-based Koch Industries, the empire of the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch. But it was his support for abortion rights that seemed to get him into the most trouble. In 2019, Republicans tried to pass a bill requiring patients to be told they could “reverse” the abortion pill; Kessinger said he looked into it and discovered that the bill was based on “quack science.” The Republican effort to override Democratic Governor Laura Kelly’s veto of the bill failed by a single vote—Kessinger’s.

That same year, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that there was a constitutional right to abortion in the state. Kessinger refused to go along with the plan to repeal that right—the plan that culminated in this year’s August 2 vote. So a coalition comprising Kansans for Life, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Koch brothers–backed Americans for Prosperity poured money into a right-wing primary challenger, Jane Dirks, who ran on restricting abortion and cutting taxes. She defeated Kessinger in the primary, then lost to a Democrat in the general election.

The way Kessinger sees it, the Republican Party’s extremism, wildly out of step with voters, cost the party a seat. He thinks the pattern will be repeated. “I expect Democratic Party rolls to bloom,” he says. There are signs that’s already happening. Even in rural counties that are solidly red, people were turning up in unprecedented numbers to Democratic Party meetings in the weeks leading up to August 2. “And I don’t see the Republicans responding,” Kessinger says. “I don’t think they realize that they woke up a giant—the silent majority.”

On August 2, the morning of the vote, I stop by Reformation Lutheran Church, where George Tiller was murdered. Like many of the churches in Wichita, this one is serving as a polling place today. A line of voters wends its way through the carpeted foyer where Tiller’s body lay. The line stretches out the set of brown double doors and into the parking lot. I meet a petite woman wearing a wide-brimmed sun hat that she put on because she thought she might have to wait in a long line outside. As we walk slowly through the foyer, she tells me in a hushed voice that she was a friend of Tiller’s. Her name is Judy; she doesn’t want to give her last name. “I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Republican,” she says, “but I’m still voting no.”

Across town, in the working-class neighborhood of Delano, Kathy Griffin stands on the street in a pink “Vote No” T-shirt holding a sign that reads: “Laws don’t stop abortion.” Griffin grew up in Mississippi and still has a Southern drawl. In the 1980s, when she was pregnant, a doctor told her that her liver was enlarged and that she likely wouldn’t survive to deliver. Griffin already had a baby at home. She was the sole breadwinner for her family. She had an abortion.

She’s been out here every day, often with her husband, Levi, and sometimes for three times a day. People speeding by honk and wave at her. Many of the drivers know her. Sometimes they bring her doughnuts. An elderly woman, walking with a cane, stops to quietly tell Griffin that she’s with her. On the opposite end of town, Stephanie Lebeda gets in line at her polling place. She’ll wait for an hour and 24 minutes. Rija Nazir will wait for over an hour to vote, too.

At the Trust Women clinic, the staff will push through a harried day that is complicated by a power outage that leaves them working in the dark, buoyed by patients who’ve traveled from the South and are ready to press ahead. “We’re in this together, honey!” a patient from Arkansas tells Christina Bourne, encouraging her as she pushes through yet another unprecedented day.

Later that evening, Bourne and Brink gather with their coworkers at a pub to watch the results come in. They have been hesitant to call it a watch party, because they are braced for a long night or a loss. Pretty quickly, it becomes clear that it’s going better than anyone imagined. Early results show voters defeating the amendment in a landslide. Those projections, almost too astounding to believe, hold throughout the night. When it’s clear they’ve won, the clinic workers begin screaming. They burst into tears. They throw back shots. They come up to Brink, weeping, to tell her how gratified they are that they’ll get to keep their jobs. They let off steam, savoring the rare feeling of victory. They celebrate until one in the morning.

Later it will turn out that 50 percent of registered voters—a third of the Kansas population—cast a ballot that day. Even counties that haven’t voted for a Democratic president since 1964 resoundingly defeated the amendment. “We didn’t just win,” Brink says. “We fucking won.”

In her home east of the city, Stephanie Lebeda and her sons high-five and hug each other. Kathy Griffin, ecstatic, is back out on the street the next morning, shouting “Thank you!” and “Y’all done good!” at the passing cars.

The Trust Women staff take the day off Wednesday. Then the clinic reopens Thursday morning. Patients arrive, with long journeys behind and ahead of them. The phones are ringing again.

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