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Kansas abortion vote shows how hard it is to take away a right

There’s a fear that many rights we now take for granted are at risk, and a populist rising against that outcome could be more bipartisan than Republicans understand.

People cheer at a watch party in Overland Park, Kansas, after learning that voters rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have allowed the Legislature to restrict or ban abortion on Aug. 2.Angie Ricono/Associated Press

Getting a right is hard. Taking it away is harder.

That’s the broad message from the Kansas abortion rights vote Tuesday. In the first political test since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot question that would have allowed the state’s Republican-led legislature to limit abortion or to fully ban it.

For Democrats, the results in Kansas are seen as an encouraging sign that the desire to protect abortion rights can bring out more voters who will support Democrats in November. But it could signal something even more important. Once you give people the right to do something, it is difficult to snatch it from them. Today, there’s a real fear that many rights we now take for granted are at risk, and a populist rising against that outcome could be more bipartisan than Republicans understand.


The overturning of Roe v. Wade lays the groundwork for that fear. In the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito Jr. wrote that nothing in the ruling “should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion.” But a line in a concurring opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas did cast doubt since Thomas raised the possibility of reconsidering decisions that guaranteed rights to same-sex marriage and contraception. Who, besides religious extremists and the politicians who want their votes, thinks that’s a good idea? And if those rights are up for grabs, what others are on the line?

Since the US Constitution was first adopted, our rights as citizens have been expanding. Now comes a movement from extremists on the right to steal those hard-earned rights from the people who benefit from them. From access to voting to equal education, much more than the specific right to abortion is at stake right now in this country and Americans are beginning to understand that.


There are concerns about Miranda rights, after another recent Supreme Court ruling that police officers can’t be sued in civil court for failing to warn a defendant of their right to remain silent in a criminal proceeding. It’s a right driven home in endless TV police dramas, and you may think that chipping away at it is no big deal — unless you or someone you know was arrested by a cop who ignored it.

According to USA Today, a record low of 8 percent of Americans lacked health insurance at the start of the year. For that, you can thank the Affordable Care Act. Think how precious that 2012 Supreme Court ruling was, when Chief Justice John Roberts cast the deciding vote in a 5-4 decision upholding the ACA’s constitutionality. The Supreme Court has ruled twice since then in favor of the law, but Republicans in Congress still rail against the right to health care that’s enshrined in it.

Apart from the bigger story of rights now under threat, the abortion rights vote in Kansas is important on its own. All Kansas voters, no matter their party affiliation, could vote on the proposed constitutional amendment to remove a state right to abortion. Turnout was described as “historic” by the Kansas City Star, which also noted, “It wasn’t just urban counties, like Democratic-leaning Wyandotte County, that turned out to protect abortion rights. Rural counties like Osage, Franklin, and Lyon also favored vote ‘no’ by significant margins.”


The Republicans who thought they could easily win this one misread the public sentiment. While abortion is a difficult and nuanced subject for many, Kansas voters backed the right to personal choice. While a subset of Americans oppose abortion under all circumstances, even in the red state of Kansas, there weren’t enough to change the state constitution to say there is absolutely no right to one. Rape and incest are not topics we like to think about, but the overturning of Roe has forced us to think about it, and when we do, it’s hard for most people to conclude the victim of either should have to carry that pregnancy to term. Stories about the health of the mother are also forcing voters to think not only of the potential child they don’t know, but of the mother, wife, daughter, or sister they do know.

In Roe, one Supreme Court gave a specific right to all Americans. Nearly 50 years later, another Supreme Court left it to the states to decide who should have it. Kansas voters showed that taking that right away is not so easy.

Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @joan_vennochi.