In August, Kansans rejected an anti-abortion referendum by a margin that surprised not only outsiders, but even some campaigners. Side With Love’s Organizing Strategy Team was eager to gain insight into the success of Kansas organizers and share them, so I called Ashanti (Ash) Spears—a native Kansan, Unitarian Universalist, and long-time activist—to get an inside perspective.
Spears was immersed in activism from childhood, helping her mother (who worked alongside Linda Brown, the plaintiff in the famed Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit). Spears began organizing work professionally at the age of 16 and later helped Sharice Davids win her groundbreaking campaign (as an Indigenous lesbian) to represent Kansas in Congress.
Most names Spears cited as key drivers of the referendum victory for reproductive rights are unknown outside Kansas. Loud Light, Kansas Birth Justice Action, the Reale Justice Network, and the Kansas branch of the Poor People’s Campaign all are small grassroots groups with diverse membership and youth and people of color in key leadership roles. (Spears noted many UUs have driven the Poor People’s Campaign in Kansas, kicking off with a workshop from Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II in 2017 that engaged fifty people to train as organizers). Those groups united with heavyweights like Planned Parenthood and Kansans for Constitutional Freedom (KCF) for the referendum campaign.
The Kansas vote in August was a legislatively-referred referendum, meaning the state legislature created the question and placed it on the ballot. The “No State Constitutional Right to Abortion” referendum proposed an Amendment to override a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that said the state constitution protects a limited right to abortion.
The rejected referendum would have enabled the legislature to restrict or ban abortions statewide.
Citizens of 24 states also can make law via initiative, whereby citizens and organizations gather a requisite number of signatures (and meet other conditions) to place a binding question on the ballot. Both referenda and initiatives may enact or repeal statutes or, in some states, amend the state constitution. Learn more at Ballotpedia.
Spears cites locally generated strategy and messaging as keys to victory for reproductive rights advocates. The KCF coalition recognized the power of language and Kansans’ pride in their history of rejecting slavery to join the United States as a free state in 1861. The coalition positioned itself as the defenders of freedom against an assault on personal liberty and an invasive government overreach by Republican legislators.
The coalition also rejected the idea of focusing solely on their base and reached into deep “red” corners of the state with door-to-door canvassing and events. “We need the right conversations and deeper conversations with more personal connections,” said Spears. “We didn’t write off anyone and focused on people, not [political] parties.”
For Spears, a 28-year-old Black woman, the struggle was personal. Spears has had multiple minor strokes related to a heart problem, and she aborted pregnancies twice, with fear of a major stroke playing prominently in her choices. She fears women will die where reproductive choice is outlawed.
Of course, as we now know, Kansans voted decisively to protect reproductive rights in the August referendum. A stunning turnout of 900,000 voters—nearly double the turnout for the 2018 primaries—rejected the anti-abortion referendum by an 18-point margin in a state that favored Donald Trump over Joe Biden by more than 14 points in 2020.
As Kansas activists celebrate their hard-earned victory, their counterparts in Kentucky are just ramping up for a nearly identical showdown in November 2022. Amendment 2, also a legislatively referred referendum, would embed language refuting any right to an abortion or public abortion funding in the state Constitution and empower the legislature to restrict or outlaw abortion.
I spoke with Rus Funk, Justice Center Coordinator for the Kentucky Unitarian Universalist Justice Action Network (KUUJAN) about their parallel work in a much more conservative state (to illustrate, its voters favored Trump over Biden by 26 points). Funk has spent many years working to stop violence against women through both organizing and writing, including his book Stopping Rape: A Challenge for Men.
In Kentucky, a “trigger law” promptly banned abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v Jackson ruling in June ( see the UUA President’s statement on our support for Reproductive Justice, and UU Worldanalysis of Dobbs). But a judge granted a restraining order sought by abortion rights advocates, based on the argument that the state constitution protects those rights.
While work to build a broad, diverse coalition and instigate conversations across Kentucky closely matches the Kansas efforts, Funk emphasized different messaging. He says, “Kentuckians are hesitant to mess with our Constitution” and messaging from the statewide umbrella group of pro-choice groups (Protect Kentucky Access) appeals to that principle. “We cannot allow special interests to edit our constitution in an attempt to impose their personal beliefs,” he says. The coalition includes Side With Love partners including Sister Song and UU congregations like Funk’s All Peoples in Louisville.
Funk believes there’s “a real hunger for faith-based voices” in support of reproductive rights. His Louisville UU congregation and many others have joined forces with other faiths via the Kentucky Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, including two Southern Baptist congregations.
As with his work against domestic violence, Funk believes it’s vital to “make [reproductive rights] a men’s issue in ways that don’t center men.”
While the strategies of Kansas and Kentucky organizers vary, their success is equally dependent on the same core elements: the hard work, generous contributions, and other support of millions of people who generate no media mentions and hold no formal power. It’s up to all of us.
Further Reading and Resources
Why We Speak of Reproductive Justice (Not Just Reproductive Rights)
UU the Vote is helping direct volunteer assistance and resources to Reproductive Justice advocacy in Kentucky as part of its “Ballot Initiatives & Issue Organizing” 2022 focus area. Request your free 2022 UU the Vote guide here.