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Kansas votes on amendment that could lead to tighter abortion laws

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It is primary day in Kansas. And in addition to selecting nominees for federal, state and local office, Kansans have voted on one issue that's been getting a lot of attention - an amendment that could set the stage for vastly tighter abortion laws. Now, even in a conservative state, that vote is looking pretty close.

And here to talk more about it is NPR political correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben. Hey, Danielle.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Hey there.

CHANG: All right. So what exactly would this amendment do?

KURTZLEBEN: Sure. So this amendment hinges around a 2019 state Supreme Court decision. And that decision found that the state constitution protects the right to an abortion. So this amendment would just undo that. It would change the constitution to say explicitly that, no, it does not protect the right to an abortion. So the amendment itself wouldn't change policy. But especially post-Roe, it would open the door to any number of new restrictions on abortion.

CHANG: OK. Let me make sure I understand this. So this wouldn't be, like, a new law.

KURTZLEBEN: No.

CHANG: It's an amendment that would allow for a possible new law.

KURTZLEBEN: Correct.

CHANG: So I'm just curious, like, how are the two sides messaging on something that's not quite clear-cut here?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, let's start with the no side. That is the people who are - who support abortion rights. They're arguing that the amendment is going to lead to a ban on abortion. And one slogan you see on a lot of yard signs here - it says, stop the ban. I talked to voters about this. I talked to Alma Isenberg and her two adult daughters, Ambra and Allie, outside of a polling place. And I asked them, do you fear a ban?

AMBRA ISENBERG: Yes.

ALLIE ISENBERG: Yes.

ALMA ISENBERG: Yes.

AMBRA ISENBERG: Because they'll make it a ban.

ALLIE ISENBERG: Yeah.

AMBRA ISENBERG: Right?

ALMA ISENBERG: Yeah. It just gives them permission to ban it and to make up whatever crazy things that they believe and whatever laws that they can just invent.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, of course, we don't know what lawmakers would do if this passes, but I've spoken with professors and analysts who have all told me that very restrictive abortion laws would be likely.

CHANG: OK. Well, what about people on the yes side, like people who oppose abortion rights who want this amendment to pass? What are they arguing here?

KURTZLEBEN: On this side, the goal is entirely to try to make the case that the amendment is not extreme, and that is reflected even in the amendment language itself. It says that lawmakers may pass laws, quote, "that account for the circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or circumstances of necessity to save the life of the mother." Now, what you might notice is that that doesn't say they will pass laws with those exceptions, just that they may. And the vote no side has criticized this as misleading.

One more thing I should add is that another main message from this side is that this is purely about Democratic representation to allow lawmakers to reflect what people want in the law. However, major organizations pushing the amendment have been very hesitant to say what they want lawmakers to pass. I was out yesterday with Titus Folks. He's a grassroots political coordinator for Students for Life. And we were talking about how there are a lot of very strongly anti-abortion rights people in Kansas. So I asked him, why not lead with a message of purely, this amendment would just cut way back on abortion?

TITUS FOLKS: I think that the messaging they chose was to focus on people in the middle, to say, hey; you like these reasonable restrictions on late-term abortion, which are overwhelmingly popular. So that's what they focused on. And I think that's - they're just trying to build the majority, basically.

CHANG: So focusing on the people in the middle. What's your sense, then, of how that messaging is working?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, if you just look at polling, there aren't a lot of great polls on this. But one from Kansas pollster CoEfficient recently found it to be a tight race with a slight lead toward the yes side. And, you know, Kansas is a pretty red state. So - and the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe really energized the pro-abortion rights side. But the middle is where you hear people thinking hard about what they support. And one person is Republican Dana Corporon, who had already voted no on the amendment.

DANA CORPORON: I generally am very pro-life, but I also have a problem with the government getting in the middle of people's personal decisions.

KURTZLEBEN: So if you talk to the vote no side, they believe those people, the moderates - that they will break for them.

CHANG: That is NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben. Thank you, Danielle.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.