Opinion: On abortion, Kansans defy stereotypes

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled recently that the state constitution protects a woman’s right to an abortion. Conservative politicians in Topeka may back putting a constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot to counter that ruling. If a lengthy abortion campaign is looming, then let’s start with facts about how average Kansans feel about abortion. That means avoiding convenient or self-reassuring stereotypes, and realizing that most Kansans are mixed on abortion and may care little about the issue.

Kansas isn’t polled frequently, so data are unfortunately infrequent. The last Kansas poll that I can find that asked about “pro-choice” or “pro-life” was 2005. SurveyUSA showed that 50% of Kansans called themselves pro-choice and 45% pro-life. Old data here are fine because choice versus life is oversimplified. Most people who call themselves pro-life in surveys support abortion rights under some circumstances, and most pro-choice people oppose abortion in some cases.

More recently, the 2018 FOX News/AP Voter Analysis survey gave Kansans these options on abortion: 14% said “illegal in all cases,” 32% “illegal in most cases,” 35% “legal in most cases,” and 19% “legal in all cases.” Thus, you can correctly say from FOX/AP that 54% of Kansans support abortion rights in all or most cases, 86% support abortion rights to some degree, and 81% favor restricting abortion to some degree.

The 2017 Kansas Speaks survey sheds light on Kansans in the middle. In that, 26% of Kansans opposed abortion “in all situations” and 29% said “abortion should be permitted for any woman who chooses it.” Among the remaining 45% who were mixed on abortion, 96% supported allowing abortions “when the mother’s life is in danger,” 86% “in instances of incest,” 86% “in instances of rape,” 65% “when there is evidence that the fetus will have serious future health problems,” but just 14 “when the mother cannot afford to have a baby.”

Surprised? Speaking of stereotypes, just 43% of Kansas Republicans in the Kansas Speaks survey totally opposed abortion in all cases. Only 55% of Kansas Democrats said that abortion should always be permitted. Likewise, many stereotypes about how religion, race and gender shape abortion attitudes aren’t that accurate, either.

Recent national polls include some useful questions that we haven’t seen in Kansas. Often only 40-50% of Americans say that abortion is an important issue, about 40% say that abortion is not a moral issue, and most people who say that abortion is “morally wrong” support abortion rights under certain circumstances. Low knowledge is also common. Up to 70% of Americans admit to being unfamiliar with basic national and state abortion laws and often half are unfamiliar with Roe v. Wade.

Yes, Kansas is famed for anti-abortion protests and abortion gets significant legislative attention here, but that doesn’t reflect average Kansans or likely their priorities. Absolutely, in surveys people who oppose abortion rights often care more about abortion than people who support those rights. Those intense activists become the stereotype of Kansas and are the main audience for anti-abortion politics in Topeka.

But ultimately, the Kansans in the middle who will decide the fate of any constitutional amendment support abortion access with limitations, may not personally view abortion as a strong moral question and might not respond to moralized hyperbole from left or right, and truly may not care much about abortion. If abortion is on the ballot, though, they will vote on it. And the side that can momentarily capture those fundamentally conflicted to indifferent voters may well prevail.

— Patrick R. Miller is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

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