As votes rolled Tuesday night on a proposed amendment to the Kansas state constitution that would repeal explicit abortion rights, the expected close race was instead shockingly one-sided: the amendment was flatly rejected, 59 percent to 41 percent.
Analysts were quick to portray the result as a setback for the anti-abortion movement, but activists and experts say it also amounts to a rejection of the Catholic Church hierarchy, which spent massive sums of money to support the passage of the amendment. The vote could also indicate a growing backlash against the Church’s involvement in the national abortion debate – not least among Catholics themselves.
Kansans strongly oppose the amendment, which aims to restrict abortion rights
After the vote, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, who publicly supported the amendment’s passage, issued a statement Wednesday lamenting its failure.
“We have not been able to overcome the millions that the abortion industry has spent misleading Kansas about the change, nor the overwhelming bias of the secular press in its failure to report clearly the true nature of the change , served to further the cause of the abortion industry,” Naumann wrote.
However, Naumann’s archdiocese and other Catholic organizations also spent millions and provided the largest single donor base for the umbrella group of advocates for change known as the Value Them Both campaign.
According to financial data and media reports, the Archdiocese of Kansas City spent about $2.45 million on the effort this year, with the Catholic dioceses of Wichita and Salina combined spending another $600,000 or more. Some individual Catholic parishes across the state participated, as did the Kansas Catholic Conference, an advocacy group linked to the state’s bishops, which reportedly donated $100,000. Separately, conservative advocacy group CatholicVote raised about $500,000 for the Do Right PAC change advocacy, according to Flatland news agency.
Kansas nuns oppose state abortion change and challenge archbishop
It remains to be seen which side will raise or spend more money, although opponents of the change have also received large donations from liberal groups such as NARAL Pro-Choice America and the American Civil Liberties Union. But these mostly secular groups didn’t shy away from the faith: In an advertisement aired in Kansans, a woman spoke about her opposition to the change from the perspective of a cradle Catholic.
“When we grew up Catholic, we didn’t talk about abortion,” says the woman. “But now it’s on the ballot and we can no longer ignore it.”
According to Natalia Imperatori-Lee, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Manhattan College, the ad probably better represents the views of the average Catholic than bishop-sponsored campaigns. The Church officially opposes abortion, but U.S. Catholics, who generally support legal abortion, have become more liberal on the issue over time: According to a recent PRRI poll, the percentage of white Catholics who believe that Abortion should be legal in all or most cases rose from 53 percent in October 2010 to 64 percent in June this year. The shift among Hispanic Catholics was even more dramatic, from 51 percent in 2010 to 75 percent in June.
“The bishops have been so focused on the idol of abortion legislation that they have failed to take a step back and recognize the complication of criminalizing abortion and what that means — particularly for vulnerable, non-white, non-affluent communities,” he said Imperatori Lee . “If the bishops will do this, if this was their plan for a ‘post-Roe’ world, then Catholics will be very disappointed.”
Chuck Weber, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, defended his group’s involvement in the Value Them Both campaign.
“I don’t apologize one bit for our intercession,” he said in an interview.
Pope Francis says ‘door is open’ to eventual retirement as he slows pace
Weber lamented the heightened tensions sparked by the state’s abortion debate — pro-choice protesters have been threatened with arrest and a Catholic church in Overland Park has been defaced — but pointed out that bishops have stood up for others in the past Topics than abortion would have set in. The conference, he said, was among those pushing state lawmakers this year to expand Medicaid coverage for new mothers from two months to 12 months. Weber also suggested that the bishops would fund campaigns on similar issues when put to the vote, as in the amendment referendum.
Despite this, Weber acknowledged that efforts to get his group’s broader agenda across to ordinary Catholics had fallen short.
“I need to let people know better that the abortion issue isn’t really the main focus of our advocacy in the state capital or in Washington, DC,” he said.
One organization that financially skipped Kansas’ change struggle was Catholics for Choice, which advocates for access to abortion. The group didn’t spend money in Kansas in part because leader Jamie Manson said they didn’t need it.
“Yesterday’s vote in Kansas shows us the power of pro-choice believers when they compete against the power, money and influence of the Catholic hierarchy,” Manson said in a statement.
She added, “I’m looking forward to more victories from David against Goliath.”
Misleading abortion texts in Kansas linked to a Republican-leaning company
The underdog spirit in the Kansas struggle was embodied by two Catholic nuns, who penned an anti-amendment letter released ahead of the vote in an act of defiance against local bishops.
“A church sign read: ‘Jesus trusted women. So do we,” the nuns’ letter reads. The sisters continued to lament the damage caused by restrictive abortion bans in other states, noting that advocates for the change focused their resources primarily on banning abortion rather than on laws that would help mothers give birth to children bring world, such as “health care, parental leave, Medicaid and other support to poor women.”
Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic and former Kansas governor who served as secretary of health in the Obama administration, praised the nuns’ letter, calling the sisters “courageous.” Whether it has broad impact or not, Sebelius said it reminds them of the nuns who voted in favor of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, which countered opposition to the law by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and is seen as a trailblazer for his last pass.
With this week’s vote, “I have absolutely no doubt that the Kansas nuns’ statement has made a difference for women who have followed what the church has said and encouraged – and listened to the nuns instead,” said Sebelius.
The vote in Kansas indicates that bishops, after being defeated in the overthrow of Roe v. Wade, having won a long-awaited victory on the Supreme Court, could now wage tough battles in many states, with unequal support from a grassroots base that would prefer to see them invest Church funds elsewhere.
“This money could do a lot of good — diapers and baby food,” Imperatori-Lee said.
— Religious Intelligence Service