Government & Politics

In Kansas and across U.S., all politics are local in abortion debate

Abortion opponents may be focusing less on national efforts, like this rally when they went face-to-face with pro-abortion rights activists in front of the U.S. Supreme Court last year.
Abortion opponents may be focusing less on national efforts, like this rally when they went face-to-face with pro-abortion rights activists in front of the U.S. Supreme Court last year. AP

David Shepard knew he would grapple with a string of tough issues when he ran for mayor of Mission.

Redevelopment. Streets. Storm water.

But abortion?

Shepard fell 16 votes short in last April’s election after his opponent was endorsed by Kansans for Life, which sent out postcards backing his rival.

The city councilman still scratches his head. He wonders just what abortion had to do with presiding over a Kansas City suburb.

“It seems misplaced to me,” Shepard said.

Not to anti-abortion groups. They say no race is too local, no office too small, to make sure voters know where a candidate stands.

America’s long-standing civil war over abortion grows more local all the time.

Sometimes the fights — in races as obscure as those for water district board — aim to make sure a candidate with an opposing abortion view never gets a toehold in politics.

Sometimes control of a city council or zoning board can determine whether and where a particular abortion clinic might operate.

Other times, the battles simply reflect the desire to fight abortion on all fronts. After all, it springs from an issue that many see as nothing less than a life-and-death matter.

“Pro-life people want to know,” said Mary Kay Culp, the executive director of Kansans for Life. “They certainly want to know when it comes to voting. When we don’t tell them, they call us.”

But the abortion issue is surfacing in local government in a variety of ways.

Earlier this month, Kansans for Life persuaded the Johnson County Commission to delay appointing a chief public health adviser. The group was upset about testimony he gave in support of a physician associated with late-term abortion provider George Tiller.

About the same time, the Saline County, Kan., Commission rejected a $6,000 state grant for contraceptives after one member of the panel compared intrauterine devices to murder. A commissioner opposed to abortion thought the contraceptive would abort a pregnancy, an argument local health officials disputed.

Last fall, Albuquerque, N.M., voters rejected a ballot measure seeking to ban abortions after 20 weeks. The referendum, which drew thousands of campaign workers from outside the state, was believed to be the first in the country for a municipality.

Abortion opponents say local government — not necessarily Congress or the statehouse — is fertile ground for stopping abortion.

“That is definitely the push, that’s definitely where we’re going to win,” said Troy Newman, the president of anti-abortion group Operation Rescue based in Wichita.

Newman claimed victory last year when city zoning rules were used to effectively close Virgnia’s busiest abortion clinic in Fairfax.

Needing new office space to comply with state regulations for abortion providers, the clinic looked to move. But it was denied a permit at its new location because parking wasn’t adequate.

Fairfax later amended its zoning rules to define abortion clinics as medical facilities, meaning they would need city council approval. Under the old rules, abortion providers didn’t need council approval.

“There are a lot of pro-life organizations focusing on Washington, D.C., but where has that gotten us the last 40 years?” Newman said. “Where we are making communities abortion-free is at the local level.”

Not always. Last year, abortion opponents tried using zoning to stop the reopening of the Wichita abortion clinic Tiller ran before he was shot to death in 2009.

Kansans for Life handed the city petitions with 14,000 signatures seeking to change the zoning so abortions couldn’t be provided at the site. Ultimately, operators of the abortion clinic prevailed, opening the facility in April 2013.

Some suburban leaders don’t see the relevance of abortion to city government. They say it is about paving streets, caring for parks and ensuring adequate police and fire protection.

Abortion opponents counter: Just because local government doesn’t directly regulate abortion doesn’t mean it can’t play a role. Today’s local water board member could be tomorrow’s state senator voting on abortion bills.

For instance, Kansans for Life in 2007 endorsed then-state Rep. Rob Olson of Olathe for a spot on the Johnson County water district board.

In 2011, Olson was appointed to fill a vacant seat in the state Senate and elected to a full term a year later. He opposes abortion.

“It’s about political advancement,” Culp said. “You make sure your guys advance to the next level.”

In the Mission mayor’s race, Kansans for Life endorsed the winner, Steve Schowengerdt, after sending surveys to both candidates.

They were quizzed about their positions on abortion, whether abortion would be a factor for appointments and whether they thought population control was a way to ease environmental strains, among other things.

Kansans for Life took a role last May in a Roeland Park City Council race.

The group backed a candidate endorsed by the outgoing incumbent. Culp said her group had no interest in the city’s ongoing debate over an ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, although that was the highest profile issue in the city at the time.

Rather, Kansas for Life said it wanted an anti-abortion voice on the council. It made two rounds of automated calls endorsing its candidate and delivered postcards door to door. The group’s candidate won.

Some of the local pressure is coming from abortion rights supporters.

In Portland, Maine, the city is defending a legal challenge to a 39-foot buffer zone keeping protesters at a distance from a local Planned Parenthood clinic.

Abortion protestors are trying to block the law in court. A federal judge heard arguments in the case Thursday but let the law stand until the U.S. Supreme Court decides a similar case from Massachusetts.

Cities have stepped into the abortion issue before, most notably with regulations approved in 1978 by Akron, Ohio. The city’s law required parental consent for minors seeking an abortion and a 24-hour waiting period for the procedure, among other things.

The Supreme Court struck down the Akron law in 1983. But many of its provisions, including parental consent and the waiting period, were found to be constitutional by the high court a decade later.

Glen Halva-Neubauer, who studies abortion politics at Furman University, said the latest flurry of abortion activity might be a return to the past.

“It’s another renaissance of local activity,” Halva-Neubauer said. “It does seem like a lot of things going on. The question is what’s driving that.”

Locally, some abortion rights supporters believe that their rivals are running out of laws to limit abortion in Kansas, so they’re turning their attention to county government.

“I see no reason why this isn’t going to filter down, whenever possible, to local government,” said Janis McMillen, a board member of MainPAC, which supports abortion rights.

Twice since 2010, Johnson County turned down federal aid to fight teen pregnancy at the urging of Kansans for Life.

The county rejected the money once because it passed through Planned Parenthood. The second time money was refused for a program that taught contraception, including a video about using a condom.

Now, Kansans for Life wants the county stopped from appointing a University of Kansas family medicine professor as its chief health adviser.

The anti-abortion group was offended by Allen Greiner’s expert testimony before the state Board of Healing Arts supporting Kris Neuhaus.

The board revoked Neuhaus’ license two years ago after she was accused of performing inadequate mental health exams on young women then referred to Tiller for late-term abortions. A judge later overturned the revocation.

This case, Culp said, “perfectly exemplifies why we believe our involvement in local politics is not only necessary, but beneficial to the community.”

To reach Brad Cooper, call 816-234-7724 or send email to