The Tangled History Behind Kansas’ Anti-Choice Democrats

Some religious Republicans once championed abortion reform, but later GOP politicians saw that they could clinch victory by courting conservative voters for whom abortion was the most important issue. And some Democrats shied away from reproductive rights because they blame abortion for previous electoral defeats.

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole showed his fellow Kansan politicians—both from the GOP and Democrats—that courting a small number of anti-abortion voters could pay off. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

On April 7, 2015, Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law a bill that made it illegal to perform dilation and evacuation (D and E) abortions, the safest and most common method to end a second-trimester pregnancy.

The D and E ban wasn’t a Republicans-only affair. About 20 percent of the state legislature’s Democrats voted for the ban, which was later blocked by a state appeals court.

But Democratic opposition to abortion is not unusual in Kansas, where Republicans were once more likely to support abortion reform before Roe v. Wade and where four anti-choice Democrats—John Alcala, Tom Burroughs, Stan Frownfelter and Adam Lusker—won re-election in 2016.

Today’s anti-choice Democrats are the product of Roman Catholic influence in the party, that party’s traditional reluctance  to champion reproductive rights in the state, and moderate Methodist Republicans backing their church’s efforts to remove abortion from criminal codes. Understanding political and religious alignments in Kansas—and particularly how they shifted from the 1960s to the 1980s—can help explain this strong contingent of Democrats who oppose abortion. They will become even more important political players in coming legislative debates about SB 98 and HB 2319, two versions of a bill that requires doctors to detail their medical credentials, malpractice insurance, and past disciplinary action to clients seeking abortions.

In the 1960s, United Methodist Church clergy and laity around the country began working with other mainline Protestant denominations to expand legal access to abortion. Some mainline Protestant ministers and lay leaders argued that statues criminalizing or banning abortion violated religious freedom and an individual’s freedom of conscience. Ministers wanted their female parishioners to have the option of terminating a pregnancy, especially in cases involving rape, incest, fetal deformity, or a threat to the pregnant person’s health or life. They also viewed criminal abortion statutes as inhibitory to their profession, especially when counseling parishioners.

In Kansas, Methodists joined with doctors, feminists, lawyers, and population control advocates to reform and repeal criminal abortion statutes. Among their staunchest allies were moderate Republican politicians who championed reproductive choice as an expression of individual liberty.

This alliance between some Republicans and mainline Protestants made Kansas one of more than a dozen states to reform its criminal abortion statute before Roe v. Wade to allow abortion in cases of rape, incest, threats to the pregnant person’s health, and fetal deformity in 1969. The Kansas Medical Society, the Kansas Psychiatric Society, the Kansas Public Health Association, the Kansas Council of Churches, the Kansas Association for Mental Health, the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas, the Kansas Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the Kansas Association for Retarded Children then worked to repeal all abortion legislation in order to legalize abortion.

Biddy Hurlbut, a lifelong Republican and leader of Kansas National Abortion Rights Action League, wrote in a 1969 letter preserved at Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library that “I do not know a state that had (or has) such a combination of conservative groups working for repeal.” By 1972, this coalition’s efforts paid off when a federal district court ruling invalidated many requirements for a legal abortion and therefore significantly broadened access to abortion in the state.

Meanwhile, the Kansas Catholic Conference opposed all attempts to overturn the Kansas criminal abortion statute and worked closely with Kansas Right to Life, a Wichita-based organization led by Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants. At the time, some anti-choice activists hoped to make a home in the Democratic Party. But anti-choice Democrats had to contend with a growing coalition of civil rights activists, feminists, and pro-choice Catholics for power within the party—and they also had to contend with the fact that the majority of Kansas residents favored legal abortion access.

According to documents in the University of Kansas Robert Dole Archives, one October 1973 poll showed that 75 percent of Kansans supported elective abortion; another poll mentioned in the papers of former Republican Gov. Robert Bennett had the number at 67 percent. Either way, a significantly higher percentage of Kansans supported legal abortion access than the general public at the time: A January 28, 1973, Gallup poll showed that as many as 46 percent of Americans favored abortion access.

While other states still had abortion bans, Kansas only required that a woman obtain the consent of a doctor before the procedure and that she terminate her pregnancy at a licensed medical facility. There were no restrictions for second- or third-trimester pregnancy terminations and no spousal or parental consent laws. And since the state had no residency requirement for abortion, the state became a major regional provider of abortions; in 1973, Kansas providers performed more abortions than occurred in Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma combined.

Recognizing their weak foothold in the Democratic Party and that they were outnumbered, Kansas anti-choice activists hedged their bets. They decided to target both the Democratic and Republican parties. They thought—correctly—that the key to transforming state abortion politics was leveraging the small minority of anti-choice voters in pivotal statewide elections.

Abortion opponents put this strategy to work in the 1974 U.S. Senate race between Dr. Bill Roy and then-freshman Republican incumbent Bob Dole, who was struggling politically after he made comments minimizing the Watergate scandal. Roy was a Topeka OB-GYN who had led efforts to repeal the state criminal abortion statute in 1969 and had performed abortions in his private practice. He changed his party affiliation from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party in 1970 and won election to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Kansas Right to Life pressured Dole to come out against abortion, promising his campaign staff that the handful of “Voters for Life” chapters could swing Catholic Democratic districts to his camp. With a state poll suggesting that abortion could be the decisive issue for one Kansas voter in six, Dole decided to risk embracing an anti-choice position that most Kansans opposed to win the support of the small cadre of dedicated anti-abortion voters. Meanwhile, Roy faltered when Kansas Right to Life attacked him as an “abortionist” and “baby killer,” according to sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s book, Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America’s Heartland.

Dole’s gamble paid off. He won the election by 50.9 percent of the popular vote. Roy carried the cities of Leavenworth and Topeka. But where Dole dominated mattered. Dole edged Roy out in Wichita and the Kansas City suburbs of Johnson County, all swing areas with large Roman Catholic populations and organized Voters for Life chapters.

Bill Roy’s 1974 defeat continues to haunt Kansas Democrats running for statewide office or as representatives from Catholic districts. Roy later reflected in a documentary, “I did not know how to handle the abortion issue. I do not know how to say to a Roman Catholic, ‘Yes, I have done some legal abortions.’”

Today, many anti-choice Democrats hail from the same swing districts that Roy had to win. And today, many Kansas Democrats also continue to cite Roy’s defeat to justify their gut belief that supporting abortion is a losing proposition for Kansas Democrats.

The Dole-Roy election also had a powerful unintended effect: It affirmed politicians’ fears that abortion was too volatile and emotional an issue for political campaigns—and one they’d rather ignore. From 1974 to 1986 (when the legislature passed a parental consent law), Democratic and Republican state legislators abided by a temporary unwritten agreement to table any abortion legislation. If state politicians did not vote on abortion, their positions would not be easily obtainable by anti-choice organizations for primaries or general elections. And that’s a strategy similar to one pursued by some of today’s Kansas legislators; while the Kansas Democratic Party supports reproductive choice, the 12 freshman Democrats who won elections in 2016 chose not to publicize their positions on abortion—either for or against—on their campaign websites.

As a result, Kansas became a state where seeming contradictions co-existed: Politicians once avoided abortion. Former Democratic Gov. John Carlin recalled that “abortion was never an issue” in his 1982 campaign or his entire career, even as anti-abortion organizing was heating up in the state. But some Democrats thought abortion support was a liability for their party. Some Republicans found that wooing a small minority of Catholics with anti-choice rhetoric could help them win. It was a reliably red state that also was voted NARAL Pro-Choice’s ninth-most supportive state for abortion rights in America in 1989.

That infuriated a growing and influential segment of the Kansas population: Southern Baptists, Protestant evangelicals, and other Christian fundamentalists who broke from their respective parties to join an insurgent Christian right. Most of these churches had taken at least a tentative anti-abortion position by 1980, and many were involved in protests and prayer on the grounds of the city’s abortion providers before and after the massive 1991 protests they called “Summer of Mercy.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joan Finney saw an opening. Finney had been a Republican for most of her life before switching to the Democratic Party in 1974. Like Bob Dole before her, she courted anti-choice voters against the wishes of the majority of her party. Her goal: to capture single-issue anti-abortion Catholic voters and the Christian Right. She promised “pro-family” caucus members that she would pass restrictive abortion legislation as governor and squeaked out a win to become the state’s first woman governor. Finney fulfilled her promises to Christian Right voters in 1992 when she signed a bill mandating women wait eight hours between receiving counseling and an abortion.

Despite the growing power of conservative Republicans in the state, some Democrats from swing districts found electoral success after 1992 by avoiding Bill Roy’s failures and following in Joan Finney’s footsteps. They sided with conservative Republicans to limit reproductive choice while pursuing more moderate education, fiscal, and labor policies.

The Christian Right revolutionized both the Kansas Republican Party and the Democratic Party—and made abortion not just an issue but arguably the issue. Mobilizing a small group of voters, they swept moderate Republicans who had defended abortion access out of office in the state primaries. And the Kansas Catholic Conference has continued to encourage state Democrats to be anti-choice, despite the fact that organizations such as the Kansans for Life Political Action Committee often refused to endorse Democrats who oppose abortion.

And there’s the rub: Condemning abortion could win votes, but could mean losing the support of both hard-core conservatives and also one’s own Democratic Party colleagues, if recent events are any indication. As Rewire reported in February, a Democratic favorite who opposed abortion lost to a pro-choice candidate at a party nominating convention for a vacant congressional seat.

That’s Kansas for you.