Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle launched a passionate, four-hour debate Wednesday over a proposed constitutional amendment by warning of the danger of boyfriends secretly leading pregnant lovers to unregulated back-alley abortions.
The Republican from Wichita urged colleagues to protect a multitude of existing regulations on abortion by placing a ballot question before Kansas voters. The amendment would override a Kansas Supreme Court ruling last year that declared the state constitution guarantees women the right to terminate a pregnancy.
Wagle pointed to laws that regulate abortion providers and require parental consent for underage girls. Failure to rewrite the state constitution, she said, places 30 years of restrictions in jeopardy and stands in the way of any new legislation on abortion.
"It's time we defend our process, that we defend our debate, that we defend the compromises we all come to, that we defend the legislation we passed, and that we not allow us to go back to that time of unlimited abortion that was a scar upon the state of Kansas," Wagle said.
Senators passed the abortion amendment on a 28-12 vote, with Sen. John Skubal, R-Overland Park, joining the chamber's 11 Democrats in opposition.
The amendment requires two-thirds majority approval in both the Senate and the House. Republicans hold an 84-41 advantage in the House, where passage is in question and the timing of a vote is uncertain.
Democrats in the Senate railed against the abortion amendment as an immoral attack on women's rights.
Sen. Vic Miller, a Democrat from Topeka, reflected on his standing as a Roman Catholic who believes in "the father almighty," as well as God's gifts of health and science. He said he also believes in not imposing his religion on others.
"Many of those beliefs I have are somewhat conflicted, and one of the reasons I am somewhat conflicted is with the duty — the duty — that I have to not just represent members of my faith but all of those I represent regardless of whether their beliefs are consistent with my own," Miller said.
The Supreme Court ruling in April 2019 put the debate in motion by finding a right to personal autonomy in the Kansas Constitution's Bill of Rights. The ruling was in response to a 2015 state law that banned dilation and evacuation abortion, a procedure used for 95% of patients who terminate a pregnancy in the second trimester.
Anti-abortion activists rallied around the high court ruling and crafted a constitutional amendment that makes clear the Legislature can adopt abortion restrictions, even in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is in danger. If passed by the Legislature, voters will decide the issue during the August primary.
The timing of the ballot question is a point of contention for opponents of the amendment who prefer to see a wider audience evaluate the issue at the general election in November. The Senate by 27-13 vote rejected an amendment by Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, that would have moved the question to November.
Wagle defended the need for an earlier vote by pointing to a strict scrutiny standard applied by the Supreme Court that will make any abortion restrictions unconstitutional upon legal challenge.
"I believe we have to act for the greater good, for the higher calling, and that we need to put this on the ballot quickly because of the risk we're taking if we don't," Wagle said.
She squared off with Miller over his proposal to exempt women from abortion restrictions when they are victims of rape or incest or their life is in danger.
"I don't know," Miller said, choking up, "that I could even come close to knowing what it would be like to be a woman and have these types of decisions in my face. I can't imagine that."
Wagle told him he was right, "this really is more of a woman's issue," and she blasted his argument as a "scare tactic." Miller's proposal failed on a 29-11 vote. A similar proposal by Sen. Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, failed 28-12.
"This language protects women in vulnerable situations by applying the same laws to them," Wagle said.
Marci Francisco, a Democrat from Lawrence, pointed to the 2015 law that led to the Supreme Court ruling. The court ruled that alternatives to the banned procedure were more dangerous to a woman's health.
"We do not have a very good reputation for protecting a woman's health," Francisco said.
In floor debate, Wagle and other Republicans insisted there was no intent to ban abortion in Kansas. But the question was raised in a meeting of Republicans before the Senate debate.
"Can we just say ban abortion period?" asked Sen. Dan Kerschen, R-Garden Plain.
Wagle answered: "To ban abortion would violate Roe v. Wade, and then we'd be in U.S. Supreme Court."
Julie Burkhart, founder and CEO of Trust Women, which provides abortion services, said the Senate debate showed the amendment is about inserting politicians between women and their doctors.
"It's even more clear to me that this is about taking away the rights that Kansas women are afforded, and that is to make decisions privately with their physicians, their family, their pastor," Burkhart said.
Brittany Jones, advocacy director for the Family Policy Alliance of Kansas, said the Senate action was "the biggest pro-life vote of this generation, and we are proud of the debate."
"We are thankful that it has passed out of the Senate and look forward to continuing to work with legislative leadership so that ultimately Kansas voters have the opportunity to ensure that women and babies in our state have the most basic safeguards," Jones said.