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Kansans are voting on the future of abortion rights in the state

CHERYL CORLEY, HOST:

We begin tonight's program in Kansas, the latest terrain where the battle over abortion rights is taking place. Voters there will soon cast ballots deciding whether to strip abortion rights from the state constitution. And as Dylan Lysen of the Kansas News Service reports, they could open the door for lawmakers to begin restricting it as drastically as they see fit.

DYLAN LYSEN, BYLINE: The proposed state constitutional amendment could eventually lead to a statewide abortion ban. That's led some Kansans to come out in droves to oppose the ballot measure.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: My body, my choice. My body, my choice.

LYSEN: Outside the Kansas State House in Topeka recently, hundreds of people gathered to voice that opposition. One protester, Shauna Williams of Topeka, says a vote for the amendment would let state lawmakers dictate what a pregnant person can do with their body.

SHAUNA WILLIAMS: You should have the freedom to decide whatever you want for yourself.

LYSEN: Meanwhile, supporters of the amendment have held rallies in church sanctuaries. During a rally at Central Christian Church in Wichita, Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, and his wife, Mercedes Schlapp, campaigned for the amendment. Along with the Catholic Church-backed Value Them Both coalition, the main group supporting the amendment, the Schlapps argued the vote simply puts abortion policymaking back in the hands of lawmakers, not the courts. Here's Mercedes.

MERCEDES SCHLAPP: There is a way to talk about this in a commonsense way, because at the end of the day, the vast majority of Kansas are - they're with us. They understand the importance of this amendment to protect the women and protect our unborn babies.

LYSEN: That could also allow lawmakers to take away abortion access completely, but the coalition won't acknowledge that. Instead, the coalition contends the amendment is not a ban on abortion, but a way to protect regulations that were blocked by state courts, like a law that mandated specific safety inspections just for abortion providers. While on KCUR's talk show "Up To Date," the spokesperson for the coalition, Danielle Underwood, would not say if she or the coalition supported new restrictions like a total ban.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIELLE UNDERWOOD: It doesn't really matter what my opinion is. It matters what the opinion of the people of Kansas is.

LYSEN: Republican lawmakers have also been quiet on what could come next. But some said they've already drafted legislation for a full-on ban. The campaign opposing the amendment, Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, argues that shows they are trying to present an extreme decision to remove people's rights as a politically moderate choice. Ashley All, a spokesperson for the group, says Republican lawmakers want to ban abortion completely, but that's not what Kansans really want.

ASHLEY ALL: There are a lot of people in the middle who, you know, may support some restrictions, but they also recognize that there are times in places where abortion is necessary.

LYSEN: Kansas polling by Fort Hays State University appears to confirm that. The survey shows most Kansans support access to abortion in some cases. It's unknown, though, if a total ban is inevitable or unrealistic. Things could change depending on the general election. Democratic Governor Laura Kelly could win reelection and wield veto power, or conservatives could keep or even gain more seats in the legislature and the ability to override her.

ALESHA DOAN: It has pulled our Republican state politicians far more to the right compared to where most Kansans are on that issue.

LYSEN: That's Alesha Doan, an abortion policy expert at the University of Kansas. She says abortion opponents focused on electing more lawmakers who support their cause. And the proposed amendment is the result of 30 years of work by those groups pushing for the same goal - a total ban.

DOAN: That's what this amendment is designed to do. And for a politician to not answer that is also disingenuous.

LYSEN: Early voting on the amendment has already begun, and Election Day is Tuesday. All Kansas voters may cast a ballot regardless of their political affiliation. For NPR News, I'm Dylan Lysen in Lawrence, Kan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dylan Lysen