Kansas Pro-Choice Victory a Referendum on Getting Back to the Grass Roots
By Mary Ann Heimann. Posted October 1, 2022.
Kansans’ August 2 vote not to throw out a constitutional amendment that protected the right to abortion was a surprise to many. But a look at Kansas history shows that it was a pro-choice stronghold through the 60’s 70’s and 80’s. Republican majorities in 1969 passed legislation that made abortion legal in cases of rape, incest, threats to maternal health (which was interpreted very broadly), and fetal deformity. Women from surrounding states came to Kansas to have abortions.
After Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court decision that established a constitutional right to abortion throughout the United States, a higher percentage of Kansans supported the right to abortion than the general U.S. population. A poll taken in October of 1973 found that 54% of Kansans felt that an abortion should be permitted based on a decision reached between a woman and her doctor. A Gallup poll that same year showed that of Americans in general 46% favored abortion rights.
I can attest to this because in 1972 (Roe v. Wade was not decided until January of 1973) I worked in an abortion clinic in Kansas City Kansas. Women and girls came not just from Kansas but from Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Missouri as well. There was only one doctor, Lynn Weller, and he ended up being murdered in 1973, not by an anti-abortionist but by a rival doctor. He had an air of being on a mission but the rest of the staff, pretty much all women, saw ourselves as part of the burgeoning women’s liberation movement. I was one of the abortion counselors, each working with groups of six or so women, preparing them for the procedure. The group setting made most women feel supported and also like they were not doing something out of the norm.
There were two schools of thought on how to prepare the women: (1) be honest that there could be some cramping (aka pain) so they wouldn’t be surprised; (2) minimize the mention of pain on the theory that tensing up exaggerated the pain. I tended to follow the second course. In any case, we held their hands and tried to distract them through the procedure. It usually only took 2 to 3 minutes. Then we would walk with them to the recovery room. Dr. Weller also did late-term abortions (he was one of the few in the U.S.). It was almost always either a woman who had found out that something was terribly wrong with the fetus or a very young girl who either had not realized she was pregnant or was afraid to tell her parents. Many of them begged Dr. Weller to do the procedure, and he usually obliged though it was hard on him. Working in the clinic, I saw first-hand that no one took abortion lightly. When I left Kansas for California in 1973, pro-choice attitudes seemed firmly ensconced. But by the 1990’s attitudes had changed.
Those of us who have spent time organizing know what kind of change talking to people one-on-one can bring about, and that is exactly what happened in Kansas. Between 1990 and 2000 the Christian Right used issues involving education, family and education to swing the Republican Party to the right. In 1979 a group of young anti-abortion activists gathered in Wichita and vowed to transform Kansas from a pro-choice to a pro-life state. LIFE, Inc. set up a speaker’s bureaus and brought anti-abortion propaganda films to churches. They set up tables in malls to gather signatures of people who agreed to have their names published as supporting the right to life. By 1983 they were engaged in nonviolent direct action in front of clinics. One of their main targets was Dr. George Tiller, who worked out of a clinic in Wichita. He was one of three doctors in the U.S. who would terminate third trimester pregnancies.
In 1991 during what they called the “summer of mercy” Operation Rescue people from all over came to Kansas to blockade clinics. They also pulled in a lot of local people and formed the Heartland Coalition. They got a law passed in 1992 that raised the age at which a child had to get permission for an abortion from a parent and made counseling mandatory to be followed by an 8-hour waiting period. Pro-life Republicans pushed out moderates. Political strategists urged Christian conservatives to get active in school boards in order to stop the teaching of evolution and sex ed. By 1992, 87% of Republican precinct committee members were Operation Rescue type activists. In 2009, Dr. Tiller was murdered. (The murderer Scott Roeder, an anti-abortion extremist, initially got 50 years before possibility of parole but it was reduced to 25 years.)
The August 2 vote signals that activists are now doing the grass roots work that is needed to counter the right. According to Emily Wales, the president of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which covers Kansas, a coalition of pro-choice groups, including organizations such as Planned Parenthood, ACLU and the League of Women Voters in Kansas formed more than a year ago. They started holding small parties with tea and cookies in living rooms where organizers talked with family and friends about how abortion had affected their lives and countered misinformation. They made hundreds of thousands of calls, knocked on tens of thousands of doors and did thousands of media interviews.
One of the key messages disseminated by pro-choice organizers appealed to Kansans’ pride in their history of rejecting slavery to join the United States as a free state in 1861. Organizers asked Kansans to again defend freedom, this time against an assault on personal liberty and invasive government overreach by Republican legislators. The key message I take from this successful campaign is that we progressives cannot ever abandon grass roots, day-to-day organizing. The victory of the Kansas pro-choice coalition shows that it still works. We need only look to the Kansas state motto: Ad astra per aspera. To the stars through difficulty.