For the first time in its 50-year history, the nation’s largest anti-abortion organization is holding its annual convention in Kansas, a state seen by many in the movement as a model for passing tough abortion restrictions.
The National Right to Life Committee, which has affiliates in every state and more than 3,000 chapters across the country, will open its convention Thursday morning at the Sheraton Overland Park with 90 minutes of speeches by Gov. Jeff Colyer and others.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm and optimism in the pro-life base right now,” said National Right to Life President Carol Tobias. “We are seeing a lot of young people getting involved. We have a president who is issuing great pro-life orders and actions. And he’s appointing judges to the courts that we believe will strictly interpret the Constitution and not make it up as they go along.”
The abortion issue will be even more at the forefront now, with Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announcing his retirement on Wednesday, a move that will allow President Donald Trump an opportunity to solidify conservative control of the high court.
The 81-year-old Kennedy, a Republican appointee, has been a key vote on the abortion issue, generally supporting abortion rights during his time on the court. Trump has repeatedly pledged to appoint justices who want to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that recognized a woman's right to an abortion.
Tobias said they expect up to 1,000 abortion opponents to attend the convention, which runs through Saturday and includes dozens of workshops with titles such as “Are You a Persuasive Pro-Lifer? Tips for Changing Hearts and Minds”; “Pro-Life Concerns about Girl Scouts”; and “Electing Pro-Life Officials: Kansas Style!”
Among the speakers are Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas; Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who also is a candidate for governor.
Kobach and Colyer will face off in the GOP primary in August. Both have been endorsed by Kansans for Life, one of National Right to Life’s most active state affiliates and the host for this year’s convention.
It’s appropriate for the conference to be in Kansas this year, Kobach said, citing what he called the state’s progress in moving the laws “in a more pro-life direction” as well as a “dismemberment abortion” case awaiting a decision from the Kansas Supreme Court.
“The pro-life spotlight is on Kansas already for those two reasons,” Kobach said.
Kobach said his hope is that under his leadership, Kansas can become the leading state in the anti-abortion movement.
That could mean passing a law in Kansas similar to one approved in Iowa earlier this year that bans most abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, or after about six weeks, he said. A judge has temporarily blocked the law, which is among the most restrictive in the nation.
“I would be in favor of the heartbeat legislation,” Kobach said.
Colyer agreed with Kobach that Kansas is a model for the anti-abortion movement but noted the concern over the pending state Supreme Court case. And though he didn’t explicitly endorse a measure similar to Iowa’s fetal heartbeat law, he said he was “for seeing anything that protects the unborn” and added, “that is one that could.”
“Kansas has been a leader in America for respecting the individual, for respecting life,” Colyer said. “That long history, and now, having this convention here in Kansas, it’s a way for us to show how we respect people, respect life and do it in a very strong, very effective, positive way.”
Three Kansas lawmakers also will be speaking at the convention. A session called “Do’s and Don’t’s for Effective Pro-Life Lobbying: Legislators’ Perspectives” will be led by Kansas Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, and Reps. Susan Humphries, R-Wichita, and Francis Awerkamp, a St. Marys Republican who made headlines last summer when he criticized the “homosexual agenda.”
Anti-abortion efforts have had strong support in the GOP-dominated Legislature in recent years — since the early 1990s, Kansas has gone from one of the states with the fewest restrictions to among the most restrictive — though no major abortion-related measures were passed this session.
“Part of what resonates is the respect that Kansans have for life, for life from conception to natural death,” Baumgardner said of the passage of more restrictions. “It is a reflection of those values that Kansans have.”
Tobias said it made perfect sense to have the convention in Kansas this year.
“I don’t like to rank our states, because they all have their own challenges and blessings and abilities, but Kansas is amazing,” she said. “They’ve been able to pass a lot of legislation, and they get great pro-life people elected.”
One issue that will be addressed at the convention, Tobias said, is medication abortion, a procedure available in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy that involves taking a combination of two pills 24 to 48 hours apart, causing a process similar to a miscarriage. Tobias said the process can be reversed if a woman changes her mind after the first pill is taken. Four states have enacted “informed consent” laws requiring abortion facilities to provide that information to women.
“As more and more abortions are performed using the pills, we want to make sure women realize that if they take that first pill and then decide they want to change their mind, they may be able to save their baby,” Tobias said.
Abortion-rights groups argue that there is no medical evidence to support that assertion and that no data exist on the safety of such a treatment.
Another closely watched issue is a law banning a commonly used second-trimester procedure called dilation and evacuation abortion, which abortion opponents call “dismemberment abortion.” Kansas was the first state in the country to pass the law, but it has been tied up in court since its passage. The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in March 2017 but has yet to issue a decision.
The ruling will determine whether the Kansas Constitution guarantees a woman the right to an abortion.
Kansans for Life executive director May Kay Culp said the ruling could have a significant impact on the state's abortion laws.
“If our legislators are banned from dealing with this issue, it would be bad,” she said. “This could undermine every pro-life law we pass in Kansas. If we don’t get the Legislature protected, the body that can represent us on this issue, then basically, everything we’ve passed could be ripped away from us by our Supreme Court."
Culp said Kansans for Life will propose a constitutional amendment if the court rules against the “dismemberment” ban.
“The amendment would guarantee that the Legislature has the right to legislate on this issue like it has for 45 years now,” she said. “It could take years, but we’re definitely prepared to do it.”
While this is the first time for the National Right to Life convention to be held in Kansas, it was held in Kansas City in 1984 and 2007. At the 1984 convention, a small band of activists planned a "sit-in" at an abortion clinic, but the effort fizzled because the clinics had all closed on that day.
Tobias said protests aren’t part of this year’s convention.
“National Right to Life focuses on legislation, education and political action — getting candidates elected,” she said. “People will go there to pray outside the facilities on occasion, but they do that on their own.”
The convention hotel is within blocks of two clinics that perform abortions, both of which are frequent targets of picketers.
Culp said, however, that the close proximity had “absolutely nothing to do with” the organization choosing the Sheraton.
The convention begins just two days after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a California law that requires anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers” to provide women information about abortion and contraceptives. In a 5-4 decision, the court said the law likely violates the First Amendment.
The decision energized anti-abortion advocates and infuriated those who support abortion rights, in part because President Trump’s newly appointed justice, Neil Gorsuch, cast the deciding vote.
"One vote: That’s the difference between ending the lies and deception at fake women’s health centers or letting them off the hook for their dangerous and deceptive practices," NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue said in a statement. "The deception at fake women’s health centers is real, but five Justices still refused to act on behalf of women who need accurate information to make the best decisions for our families and our lives. Today, the Supreme Court turned its back on women and condoned the deceptive tactics used by fake women’s health centers."
And with the certainty of more appointments during Trump’s presidency, abortion is guaranteed to become an even hotter issue.
“The state of reproductive healthcare access in the United States is alarming,” NARAL said in a February report on the Status of Women’s Reproductive Rights in the United States. The report said there was a “dearth of access in many regions.”
Kansas and Missouri were among the states the report described as having “severely restricted access” to abortion.
The National Right to Life Committee has been at the forefront of those efforts.
The organization formed in 1968, several years before the Supreme Court's landmark Roe vs. Wade decision. In subsequent rulings, the Supreme Court has said that states cannot ban abortion prior to viability — the point at which a fetus can survive outside the womb — and that restrictions on abortion after viability must contain exceptions to protect the life and health of the woman. Moreover, any restrictions placed on abortion before viability cannot place an “undue burden” on the woman seeking the procedure.
Those rulings have prompted states to pass a patchwork of abortion laws, many of them regulating and restricting when, where and under what circumstances a woman may obtain an abortion.
Among the more common restrictions passed by states are parental notification or consent for minors; limitations on public funding of abortion; mandatory waiting periods and counseling before an abortion can be obtained; and tight regulations on facilities that perform abortions.
Since 2010, the U.S. abortion landscape has grown increasingly restrictive, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights.
Between 2010 and 2016, it says, states enacted 338 new abortion restrictions — about 30 percent of the 1,142 abortion restrictions enacted by states since Roe.
The number of facilities providing abortion in the country went from 1,720 in 2011 to 1,671 in 2014. In 2014, 90 percent of counties in the U.S. had no clinics that provided abortions. The number of abortion providers has decreased as well, from a high of 2,918 in 1982 to 1,671 in 2014, Guttmacher statistics show.
The number of abortions also has dropped. About 926,200 abortions occurred in the United States in 2014, down from a high of 1.6 million in 1990, according to Guttmacher. The 2014 rate, 14.6 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age, is the lowest rate ever observed in the United States; in 1981, the rate was 29.3 per 1,000 women.
The reasons given for the decline are mixed: More contraceptive use, the enactment of more restrictions, continued threats of violence and harassment at abortion clinics and fewer hospitals and doctors providing services.
Despite the declines, Guttmacher researcher Rachel Jones said, abortion “is still a common procedure, and nearly one in four U.S. women will have an abortion in her lifetime.”
A recent Gallup poll found that Americans’ attitudes toward abortion have remained fairly constant over the past two decades. Six in 10 U.S. adults support abortion rights in the first trimester, the poll found, but the support dwindles to 28 percent in the second trimester and 13 percent in the third.
Culp said the way to change people’s attitudes is through education and the political process. And that, she said, is what this week's convention is all about.
“It’s like a football game,” she said. “We’re more than halfway down the field, but if we throw a Hail Mary pass into the end zone by trying to get rid of all abortion all at once, it’s dangerous. It’s hard to have to wait. But we’re making progress by going slowly, educating the public as we go.”