When the news came in that Kansas had voted against banning abortion in the state, the country took a breath. It wasn’t a close vote, or one with a low turnout. Despite being scheduled for August — a summer month when historically turnouts are lower, especially among Democrats — 800,000 people went to the ballot box to vote on the amendment to the Kansas Constitution. Just past midnight, it became obvious that the “no” side — the side that opposed changing the Constitution in order to ban abortion — had won, as counts showed it was winning by a 20-point margin.
This was clearly an election that galvanized people. In 2018, the Kansas primary elections — themselves a big-deal affair — only tempted out half that amount of voters.
Bordering Kansas to the south is Oklahoma, a state with a trigger law in place after the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe that banned all abortions “from conception” (obviously, because abortions can only be performed after conception, that means a full abortion ban.) To the east of Kansas is Missouri, which has a “heartbeat bill” functionally banning abortion after four weeks of true pregnancy. To the north is Nebraska, where abortion is currently legal but whose governor recently said he was considering an abortion ban with exceptions only to save the life of the mother. In other words, Kansas is not in a neighborhood where anti-abortion campaigners might expect to lose.
So what went wrong for the people so determined to sign away women’s rights? Based on my travels round Texas, Oklahoma and Alabama over the past few years, I think I have some idea.
In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I spoke to one woman who carried a rosary and had Catholic iconography taped to the dashboard of her car. “I’m not saying I support abortion,” she said. “I’m not for abortion.” But, she added, some young girls “get themselves in situations” that they don’t deserve. She thought they should be able to make a private choice to do with their bodies. She didn’t think it was right to take away their autonomy. So, despite saying that she was “not for” abortion, she was pro-choice — and she intended to vote that way if it ever came to a referendum.
Outside the Supreme Court in Washington DC on the day Roe v Wade was overturned, I spoke to a young man from Missouri. He told me earnestly that he didn’t think abortion should be allowed “in all circumstances”, but when I ask which circumstances he meant, he clarified that he meant “after birth”. He did think that women deserved to make the choice to access a termination of pregnancy while the fetus was in utero, he said. Despite being raised as religious and “pro-life,” he’d thought about the issue a lot since the Court turned conservative, and even turned up to DC to try and engage former anti-abortionists like himself in conversation. While some people might think his position a little absurd — who believes abortion happens after a child is born? — it’s not uncommon for anti-abortion campaigners to spread misinformation about full-term babies being killed after birth by nefarious doctors. Indeed, Donald Trump said more than once during rallies before the 2020 election that he’d “heard of” crying babies being put to death this way. When you grow up in a rural town in a state like Missouri, it’s not uncommon to be told that this is what abortion looks like.
During the early days of the pandemic, I interviewed a young couple in Texas who were experiencing the worst moment of their lives. They had long been trying to get pregnant, and had received the happy news a few months earlier that the woman was pregnant was twins. Only weeks later, the news was followed by a devastating diagnosis: both twins suffered from multiple abnormalities and were incompatible with life. If carried to full term, they would die at birth or a few hours later. The couple, who were Trump voters and lifelong Republicans, were shocked to be told that a pandemic law temporarily banning abortions in Texas — the precursor to a permanent ban that was later instated — meant they couldn’t access their medically necessary termination. Vulnerable and pre-vaccination, they drove through the state to New Mexico to pay out of pocket for a costly procedure that wiped out their savings. They told me that they never knew people they voted for would stand for something like this. Republicans, they thought, believed in freedom of choice.
And on the Texas-Oklahoma border in July 2020, I spoke with a man who had turned out for a right-wing political gathering in an idyllic town by the water. A strange combination of people had turned up for the event: British Brexiteer politician Nigel Farage was a speaker there, and so was an evangelical priest. While the priest railed against abortion, another man I spoke to was a member of the local libertarians and handing out pamphlets about liberty for all. I asked him whether getting into bed with hardline evangelicals bothered him, a person who believed above all else in freedom. He shrugged his shoulders and nodded a little, and told me it was a “compromise”.
The couple in Texas who travelled to New Mexico didn’t want to be named in my article, because they feared the stigma of abortion. They came from a conservative neighborhood and had heard about “pro-life” people, but hadn’t interrogated what that really meant. Though they may have said so on the doorstep to an anti-abortion campaigner knocking, they would not have voted for a full-scale ban on abortion — and they didn’t intend their Republican votes to be seen as an endorsement of such a position.
This week’s vote in Kansas shows how little the GOP knows about its base. Despite the statistics showing that most Americans — 61 per cent — believe abortion should be legal, a small group of Republicans are convinced that that percentage only represents “coastal elites”. In reality, it also represents rural and southern-state residents who might feel uncomfortable with the idea of late-term abortion (an extremely rare procedure usually only done to save the life of a dying mother) but even more uncomfortable with legislating against people’s rights to bodily autonomy. Importantly, this is the first vote in the country that has actually asked voters within a state what they think of abortion as one specific issue.
Republicans campaign, month after month and year after year, on “freedom”: freedom to own as many guns as you like, freedom from high taxation, the freedom to pay for and choose your own healthcare rather than relying on a state-controlled system. At rallies across the country, Republican politicians — and candidates like Trump — play God Bless the USA as their opener before taking the stage, usually beginning at the line: “I’m proud to be an American/ Where at least I know I’m free”. Right-wing Americans like to imagine themselves as rugged individualists happy to live in a dog-eat-dog world where the markets are free and what happens inside one’s home is a private matter, unencroachable by the government.
In this context, an abortion ban makes very little sense. It’s hard to convince people that sex education should be taken out of schools because it’s a “private family matter” while at the same time saying the state should legislate against what happens inside women’s wombs. It’s hard to sell yourself as a freedom-lover when you also believe in forced birth. Progressives and libertarians alike respond to that hypocrisy with unease. And, as we saw in Kansas this morning, many will then go to the ballot box and let their representatives know that isn’t what they signed up for when they voted red.
Roll on the midterms.