The high-stakes debate Tuesday on a proposed constitutional amendment reversing the Kansas Supreme Court decision establishing abortion as a fundamental right attracted a standing room-only crowd that illustrated political, health, legal and religious divisions woven into the issue.
Republican legislative leaders enthusiastic about an opportunity to rebuke the state's highest court by altering the Kansas Bill of Rights decided to expedite the abortion discussion by bringing representatives and senators from both chambers together for a joint public hearing on the amendment. The measure would require two-thirds majority votes in the House and Senate to put it before statewide voters. The GOP strategy is to place the amendment on August primary ballots.
Proponents and opponents filling a large third-floor hearing room pointed to speculative consequences of the April abortion decision by the state Supreme Court. Legislators on both sides tossed out questions intended to weaken or strengthen arguments of people testifying. The GOP committee chairmen several times cut off speeches by legislators.
Anti-abortion lawmakers and lobbyists said they sought insertion of language declaring that no right to abortion existed in the Bill of Rights and to prevent the state courts from repealing laws regulating Kansas abortions.
"If we want to ensure that women are given the most basic information about their doctor, that minor children are not left to make important decisions on their own, that women can know that they will enter a clean, safe facility and that Kansas will not be forced to pay for abortions, we must ensure that the people have the right to regulate the abortion industry," said Brittany Jones, advocacy director for the Family Policy Alliance of Kansas.
Jeanette Pryor, policy specialist with the Kansas Catholic Conference, said the Hodes and Nauser v. Schmidt decision was contrary to views of four bishops and dioceses in Kansas as well as thousands of Catholics who signed a petition in support of the amendment.
"Kansas mothers and babies currently benefit from a robust body of reasonable pro-life laws," she said. "These sensible regulations are at risk of being eliminated."
Choice advocates opposed to the constitutional amendment argued the maneuvering was the first step toward adoption of an all-out ban on abortion in Kansas, a process likely to follow the approach taken by Tennessee to reduce access to abortion. Language in the Kansas House and Senate resolutions is contained in four other state constitutions.
"The purpose of this amendment is to open the floodgates for new, numerous and dangerous restrictions on abortion," said Nigel Morton, Kansas organizer with United for Reproductive and Gender Equity. "Using our state constitution to take basic protections and health care away from people is a betrayal of values and the purpose of our constitution."
He said abortion should be viewed as a normal and essential part of the full range of sexual and reproductive health care.
Gavriela Geller, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau, said the proposed amendment would allow the state to violate the separation of church by prohibiting members of the Jewish faith from making health decisions in accordance with Jewish tenets.
The broad consensus in the Jewish community prioritizes life of the mother over that of a fetus, she said.
"Even under the strictest interpretation of Jewish law," she said, "there are circumstances that would justify an abortion."
Spectators stood along walls in the Old Supreme Court chamber in the Statehouse after filling all of the seats. Dozens stood in the hall listening to the testimony from a speaker.
Judie Brown, president of American Life League, said the House and Senate resolutions contained "compromise and unprincipled" text that fell short of the objective of stopping abortion.
"The language is fraudulent in that it will not protect expectant mothers and their preborn children from the heinous act of abortion but instead proposes to regulate the killing," Brown said. "Just as regulating the gas chambers in Nazi Germany would have been unthinkable, so too this proposal is unthinkable. This is not a pro-life initiative but is rather a bogus proposal based on political consensus."
The House and Senate concurrent resolutions would add a new section to the state's Bill of Rights declaring nothing in the constitution required the government to finance abortions nor did it create or secure a right to abortion. It would say Kansas legislators could pass bills regarding abortion subject to U.S. protections of an individual's right to abortion.
The state Supreme Court decision at the center of the dispute prevented Kansas from enforcing what was a first-in-the-nation 2015 law banning a procedure common to second trimester abortions.
The political drama in Kansas is occurring at a time when Republican-controlled states have moved to limit abortions in direct challenges to the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decisions legalizing abortions across the nation.