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Church and state: Kansas Republicans ignore voters and pass new anti-abortion laws

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TOPEKA — Torn between his Catholic faith and commitment to public service, Rep. Henry Helgerson struggled to keep his composure as he spoke to colleagues from the House floor near the end of this year’s legislative session.

The Eastborough Democrat referenced an avalanche of anti-abortion legislation produced by Republicans in defiance of voters who rejected a constitutional amendment on abortion in August.

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The Legislature was debating House Bill 2060, which addresses the state’s shortage of gynecologists by offering tuition assistance to medical students. The program is not available to anyone who receives training to perform abortions.

Fighting back tears, Helgerson talked about his role three decades ago in helping pass legislation that bans abortion at state-funded facilities. But he couldn’t understand why the state would prohibit health care professionals from being trained to provide a legal service.

“That crosses a whole different line,” he said. “I believe that if the voters have made a decision to allow abortion in this state, I want the doctors to have the best training. To prohibit them from having that is not in anyone’s best health interests.

“I walk a real close line because I am torn on this issue. I am torn because, raised Catholic, go to church on a regular basis, but I still have everything that you all have, those feelings. But the state and our obligation is different than my religious obligation. And today, the last few days, we have crossed the line where my religious beliefs, or other people’s religious beliefs, suddenly takes over what the state policy is.”

Kansas Reflector is examining the influence of religious beliefs on state government through a series of stories.

Ashley All, spokeswoman for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, gives a speech Aug. 2, 2022, at a watch party in Overland Park after primary results verified Kansans voted to preserve abortion rights. (Lily O'Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)
Ashley All, spokeswoman for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, gives a speech Aug. 2, 2022, at a watch party in Overland Park after primary results verified Kansans voted to preserve abortion rights. (Lily O’Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)

Despite the 59-41 margin in a statewide vote on the constitutional amendment last year, Republican lawmakers passed new anti-abortion laws. Abortion providers will have to tell patients the abortion pill can be reversed, a dangerous proposition based on junk research. Doctors will continue to provide medical care for infants who are “born alive,” thanks to legislation designed to promote a false narrative that “failed abortions” are performed on infants who are capable of surviving. And abortion providers will no longer be able to obtain liability insurance through the state Health Care Stabilization Fund, even though they are required to contribute to it.

Additionally, the Legislature allocated tax dollars to support “pregnancy crisis centers,” which actively discourage women from seeking abortions.

“We are moral people,” said Rep. Ron Bryce, a Republican physician from Coffeyville who claimed he personally provided aid to 27 babies who survived an abortion. “We provide care for those who are weak, for those who are disadvantaged, for those who are innocent and powerless.”

Abortion has dominated Kansas politics for decades, but attention to the issue was heightened last year by the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade and Kansas voters’ rejection of the proposed constitutional amendment.

In March, supporters of access to reproductive health care gathered en masse to celebrate bodily autonomy and protest anti-abortion legislation. At other times throughout the session, Kevan Myers, of Kansas City, Kansas, and Clifton Boje, of Bonner Springs, picketed the third floor railing with large anti-abortion signs. They are leaders of an abortion abolitionist ministry based in St. George.

One sign read: “We are ambassadors of Jesus Christ pleading from God a message of reconciliation.”

Another: “The laws against murder should be applied equally to all people.”

Rep. Tobias Schlingensiepen, a Topeka Democrat and senior minister at First Congregational Church, said in an interview for this series that he “talked to a Republican leader, who I shall leave unnamed, who said to me: ‘We don’t really care about all this stuff, Tobias. We just bring all these abortion bills because we need to let the people who support us know that we’re carrying water for them despite the referendum last summer.’ ”

The attack on abortion rights in Kansas preserves the status quo.

Since the Summer of Mercy in 1991, powerful faith-based lobbying forces have influenced elections and established barriers to reproductive health care. Under Kansas law, a woman who seeks an abortion will be given state-mandated propaganda designed to change her mind. She will then have to look at an ultrasound image, wait 24 hours and pay for the procedure out of her own pocket.

State law prohibits abortion after 22 weeks, except to save the life of a mother.

In 2009, Scott Roeder, a member of a militant Christian Patriot group, gunned down physician George Tiller in his Wichita church. Tiller’s clinic had been bombed in 1986, and he had survived a 1993 shooting.

The Kansas Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in 2019 that determined the state constitution’s right to bodily autonomy extends to the decision to terminate a pregnancy. The ruling, which was a response to state law that banned a procedure used in 95% of second-trimester abortions, ensured abortion rights would be preserved in Kansas after the U.S. Supreme Court removed federal protections last June.

The Catholic Church, Kansans for Life, Family Policy Alliance and others funneled millions of dollars into a campaign to overturn the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision through a constitutional amendment. Secret audio obtained by Kansas Reflector revealed that state lawmakers planned to ban abortion without exception if the amendment passed.

But six weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Kansas voters jolted the political establishment by rejecting the amendment in an unexpected landslide.

Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, appears at a Jan. 10, 2023, news conference where Republicans outlined their priorities
Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, appears at a Jan. 10, 2023, news conference where Republicans outlined their priorities, including plans to fund anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers,” for this year’s legislative session. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

In an email to supporters a day after the election, Sen. Mike Thompson, a Shawnee Republican, said it was his “fervent hope” that more than a half-million Kansans who voted against the amendment were simply misled by campaign ads and “a complicit media.” The alternatives, he said, were “disturbing and unthinkable.”

Thompson wondered if Kansans were really OK with infants being torn apart, limb from limb, or the prospects of Kansas becoming “an even bigger destination site for abortion tourism.” He listed other possible explanations for the popular vote that involved false narratives about abortion clinics.

“I know that some are absolutely satisfied with the end result and are likely celebrating today,” Thompson wrote in his email blast. “I hope and pray that someday they realize the devastation they have left behind.

“May God have mercy on Kansas. We will need to reprove to Him, somehow, that we deserve His grace.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Kansas Reflector series: Church and state

Church and state: Kansas Republicans ignore voters and pass new anti-abortion laws

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Despite the 59-41 margin in a statewide vote on the constitutional amendment last year, Republican lawmakers passed new anti-abortion laws.

Church and state: Kansas Republicans reject systemic racism while fighting critical race theory

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For the past two years, Kansas Republicans have been more interested in shielding white children from the application of “critical race theory” — a political catchall they apply to grievances with history lessons and diversity training. The opposition is consistent with fringe Christian beliefs on race.

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