In Kansas, the vote on abortion, a blow for the political strategy of the Catholic bishops


When votes rolled the night of August 2 on a proposed Kansas state constitution amendment that would remove the explicit right to abortion, what was expected to be a close race was instead shockingly lopsided: the amendment was rejected by 59%. at 41% – a gap of 18 points.

Analysts were quick to portray the result as a setback for the anti-abortion movement, but activists and experts say it also amounts to a rejection of the Catholic Church hierarchy, which had shelled out massive sums to support the adoption of the amendment. The vote could also hint at a growing backlash against the church‘s involvement in the national abortion debate, especially among Catholics themselves.

Following the vote, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, who publicly supported the amendment’s passage, issued a statement Aug. 3 lamenting its failure.

“We have not been able to overcome the millions spent by the abortion industry to deceive Kansans about the amendment, nor the overwhelming bias of the secular press whose failure to clearly report of the true nature of the amendment served to further the cause of the abortion industry,” Naumann wrote.

However, Naumann’s own Archdiocese and other Catholic organizations have also spent millions, representing the largest donor base for the pro-amendment umbrella group known as the “Value Them Both” campaign.

According to financial and media reports, the Archdiocese of Kansas City spent about $2.45 million on the effort this year, with the Catholic dioceses of Wichita and Salina together spending an additional $600,000 or more. Some individual Catholic parishes across the state contributed, as did the Kansas Catholic Conference, an advocacy group tied to the state’s bishops, which reportedly spent $100,000. Separately, conservative advocacy group CatholicVote has raised about $500,000 for the pro-amendment Do Right PAC, according to Flatland.

It remains to be seen which side raised or spent more money, though opponents of the amendment also received large donations from liberal groups such as NARAL Pro-Choice America and the American Civil Liberties Union. But these mostly secular groups did not shy away from faith: In an ad aired in Kansans, a woman spoke of her opposition to the amendment from the perspective of a Catholic cradle.

“Growing up Catholic, we didn’t talk about abortion,” the woman says. “But now it’s on the ballot, and we can’t ignore it anymore.”

According to Natalia Imperatori-Lee, chair of the religious studies department at Manhattan College, the ad likely represents the views of the average Catholic better than campaigns funded by bishops. The church officially denounces abortion, but American Catholics, generally supportive of legal abortion, have only become more liberal on the issue over time: according to a recent PRRI poll, the percentage of white Catholics who think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. fell from 53% in October 2010 to 64% in June this year. The change among Hispanic Catholics has been even more dramatic, rising from 51% in 2010 to 75% in June.

“The bishops have been so focused on the idol of abortion legislation that they haven’t taken a step back and seen the complication of criminalizing abortion and what it means – especially for women. vulnerable, non-white, non-wealthy communities,” Imperatori-Lee said.

“If that’s what the bishops are going to do, if that was their plan for a ‘post-Roe’ world, then Catholics are going to be very disappointed.”

Chuck Weber, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, defended his group’s involvement in the Value Them Both campaign.

“I don’t apologize at all for our advocacy,” he told Religion News Service in an interview.

Weber lamented the heightened tensions sparked by the state’s abortion debate (abortion rights protesters were threatened with arrest and a Catholic church in Overland Park was defaced), but pointed out that the Bishops have lobbied on issues other than abortion in the past. The conference, he said, was among those pushing state lawmakers this year to expand Medicaid coverage for new moms from two months to 12 months. Weber also suggested that the bishops would fund campaigns on similar issues if they came to a vote like the referendum on the amendment.

Even so, Weber acknowledged that efforts to convey his group’s broader agenda to mainstream Catholics have failed.

“I have to do a better job of letting people know that the issue of abortion is not really the main point of our advocacy at the State Capitol or in Washington, DC,” he said.

One organization that financially skipped the Kansas amendment battle was Catholics for Choice, which advocates for abortion access. The group didn’t spend money in Kansas partly because, according to Catholics for Choice leader Jamie Manson, it didn’t need to.

“Voting in Kansas yesterday shows us the power of pro-choice believers in the face of the power, money and influence of the Catholic hierarchy,” Manson said in a statement.

She added, “I look forward to more David vs. Goliath victories.”

Kansas’ underdog spirit in the fight was embodied by two Catholic nuns who penned an anti-amendment letter released before the vote that amounted to an act of defiance against local bishops.

“A church sign read, ‘Jesus trusted women. We too,” read the nuns’ letter. The sisters then lamented the harm caused by restrictive abortion bans passed in other states and noted that proponents of the amendment have primarily focused their resources on banning abortion, not legislation. that would help mothers who bring their children to term, such as “health care, leave, Medicaid, and other supports for poor women.”

Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic and former governor of Kansas who served as health and human services secretary under former President Barack Obama, praised the nuns’ letter, calling the sisters “courageous.” Whether or not it had a broad impact, Sebelius told Religion News Service, it reminded her of when nuns spoke out in favor of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, which countered opposition from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to the bill and is credited with paving the way for its final passage.

“I saw the nun’s statement in the Affordable Care Act change the minds of members of Congress despite the bishop’s statement urging people to vote no,” Sebelius said. “I have no doubt that the statement from the Kansas nuns made a difference for women who follow what the church said and what they promoted – and instead listened to the nuns.”

The Kansas vote suggests that the bishops, having won a long-awaited Supreme Court victory in the overthrow of roe deer v. Wade in June, can now fight uphill battles in many states, with uneven grassroots support who would rather see them invest church money in other places.

“That money could do a lot of good — diapers and formula,” Imperatori-Lee said.


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