While Georgia, Alabama and Missouri just passed strict abortion bans, the Kansas Supreme Court has taken a completely different tack.
In Hodes & Nauser v. Schmidt, the court ruled that the Kansas Constitution protects a woman’s right to have an abortion, except in cases of a narrowly tailored state interest. Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle quickly denounced the decision. Making little reference to the court’s reasoning, Wagle instead used a fiery op-ed to denounce the decision as out of touch with Kansas values, criticize other states that have passed laws protecting abortion access and even invoke the draconian phrase “culture of death.” Wagle and her allies demand a legislative fix, most likely a constitutional amendment, to the ruling.
Listening to the rhetoric, one could hardly guess that the number of abortions provided in the U.S. is already falling dramatically — but it is. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of abortions dropped from over 852,000 in 2006 to about 638,000 in 2015. There is nothing in the data indicating that the drop is due to tough state restrictions on abortion. Instead, during the period studied, new methods of birth control — particularly reversible implants — became more widely available and commonly used, resulting in fewer unplanned pregnancies and fewer abortions. We should build on this progress.
If Wagle and her allies succeed in criminalizing abortion here, then women who are able will simply travel to other states to have abortions. Granted, Georgia’s brand-new law include penalties for state residents who have abortions in other states, but this provision blatantly violates the U.S. Constitution’s Privileges and Immunities Clause. It is not likely to survive even the most conservative court. Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story. Kansans women who suffer from rape, incest, poverty or some combination of these would now face even more challenges. Some of those affected are children themselves. Ominously, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s birth statistics include a category for babies born to girls ages 10 to 14. There were only 22 of these in 2016 — but that is 22 too many, and not a number we want to see on the rise.
The best way to make abortion obsolete is comprehensive, affordable birth control along with sex education that has an opt-out provision for families having religious objections. As the CDC data show, better contraception means a steep drop in the number and rate of abortions, and this is something to celebrate. Sex education also needs to empower young women, letting them know it is OK to say “no” until they are ready and providing emotional support, along with a clear, safe pathway for reporting sexual abuse and ensuring that the reports are followed up.
Even if we do make the right choices and make unplanned pregnancies rare, the state’s foster care, adoption and child service systems will still need attention. Social services received a funding boost this year but they remain overwhelmed. In just the past week, there have been new reports of children sleeping in state offices because they have nowhere else to go. Medicaid expansion would help, too, by funding pre-natal care for those who choose to keep their pregnancies. Also, adoption in Kansas remains expensive and complicated for prospective families, many of whom resort to international adoptions instead. Finally, the legislation could streamline the expensive bureaucratic hurdles faced by grandparents and other relatives who raise these children.
Criminalizing abortion is a self-defeating political stunt. Instead, the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision offers Kansas the chance get it right — reducing abortions the right way, empowering young women and providing compassionate care for all. Now, will state legislators listen?
— Michael A. Smith teaches Political Science at Emporia State University.