On 13 July, Sarah McGinnity, 39, sat down with her mother, 67, and six-year-old daughter and carefully wrote postcards to people she’d never met.
“Dear voter, it will take all of us to protect reproductive rights in Kansas,” they read.
She sent the cards to voters in rural Kansas before a referendum on Tuesday, the first in the country to put abortion rights on the ballot since the overturning in June of the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade ruling that secured federal abortion rights.
“I never in my life thought I’d be doing that,” said McGinnity, a business owner from Overland Park, who was not always pro-choice.
McGinnity grew up in a Republican household and never discussed abortion with her parents until recently.
“But [for my Mom], to think of her granddaughter having fewer rights than she did – rights she thought had already been secured – it’s pretty shocking,” McGinnity said.
Abortion is legal in Kansas, but Tuesday’s vote, confusingly called the Value Them Both Amendment, seeks to overturn a 2019 Kansas supreme court decision, which ruled that the state’s constitution includes a right to abortion.
It represents the legislature’s second shot at a referendum – in 2020, a more directly named amendment, Kansas No State Constitutional Right to Abortion, failed to get on the ballot.
The vote could be a litmus test on public opinion, and will be watched by legislators looking to restrict abortion in places like Pennsylvania, and to protect rights in Michigan, Vermont and California.
Kansas has become a safe haven for abortion in the midwest recently, as many surrounding states have banned the procedure since Roe was overturned. A yes vote to overturn state protections would be far-reaching.
“Kansas has an opportunity to model what should happen for the rest of the nation,” said Jonathan McRoy, a 38-year-old military veteran from Wichita who supports abortion rights. “I’m an outlier as a Black veteran and a progressive in the veteran community, but as someone who has pledged my life for the constitution, I’m compelled to take action.”
Millions of dollars have been donated on both sides, in a tense election that has seen yard signs stolen and churches vandalized. That hostility is not taken lightly in a state where an abortion doctor was murdered in 2009 by an anti-abortion activist.
At the Church of the Ascenscion in Overland Park, graffiti reading “My body, my choice” has now been scrubbed clean. The church – which donated thousands to the yes campaign – has several purple yes signs adorning its manicured lawns.
“I’m not a radical. I hate the ugly tactics on both sides,” said Christy McNally, 68, from Stillwell, who is voting yes to overturning the state constitutional protection. She believes abortions should be allowed in medical emergencies.
“But a medical emergency is not the same as using abortion as birth control,” she said.
Marisel Walston, a paralegal aged 56 in Lenexa, stood proudly with her yes sign. She arrived from Cuba aged 14, fleeing communism.
“The judges decided there was a constitutional right to abortion, and I feel that’s a pretty big stretch … It should be up to the people to decide,” said Walston.
Walston chairs the Johnson county Republican party. The party estimates the yes vote is ahead, but when campaigning on doorsteps “it’s fairly divided”, she said.
Quinn Patel, 19, also from Lenexa, will vote no, which means supporting abortion protections, with his parents and sister on Tuesday.
His mostly male social circle is following suit. “We recognize this is something women should have a right to choose on,” he said.
Seth Simmons, a 37-year-old pharmaceutical worker, would support a total ban on abortion, although he said that was not the aim of the amendment.
Regional directors at the Value them Both coalition have previously said it has pre-written legislation ready to ban abortion in Kansas if they secure a yes vote.
“For me, it comes down to equal protection under the law for the unborn. They are humans, they have the same rights as the rest of us, and abortion is murder,” he said.
Republican lawmakers have been accused of setting out to confuse people and suppress votes.
“The ballot mentions a state constitutional right to abortion funding in Kansas, but that funding has never really been on the table,” said Mary Ziegler, a US abortion law expert from the University of California, Davis.
“Historically, in Kansas primaries, turnout is lower for Democrats and Independents … so the timing was probably designed to give the yes vote a boost,” she said.
Will the result accurately reflect Kansans’ beliefs?
“In 2021, 60% of Kansas voters said they did not want an absolute ban on abortion. So I would think that most Kansas voters, if they knew what this was, would not be in favor of it,” Ziegler said.
Misinformation abounds. On Wednesday, the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood hosted an informational event, inviting Great Plains Planned Parenthood, an obstetrician-gynecologist, and Kansans For Life to talk.
It’s one of the world’s biggest methodist churches, and the founder, the Rev Adam Hamilton, discussed a questionnaire it had distributed, receiving over 4,000 responses. The state vote represents abortion as a binary issue, but survey respondents were mainly in the middle – not for a total ban nor for no limits, he said.
What followed was mixed messaging. In a pre-recorded message by Kansans for Life, communications director Danielle Underwood spoke about third trimester abortions, taxpayer funding for abortion, lack of regulation and no parental consent for youth abortions in Kansas – none of which are the law of the land in Kansas.
“Either we have a limit to the abortion industry, or no limits. That’s what the amendment says,” said Underwood.
“I come at this analysis as a lawyer,” rebutted Emily Wales, chief executive of Great Plains Planned Parenthood.
“We do have regulated abortion. You don’t see abortion accessible everywhere, [or] past 22 weeks, which is the state ban. And two-parent consent [for minors] is required,” she said.
Nearby, in a wealthy, conservative neighborhood with landscaped gardens, volunteer Nancy Mays, 60, was campaigning for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom on Thursday.
“I’m voting no on Tuesday, because I don’t like government overreach,” she told the first couple who answer their door. The campaign knows that answer chimes well with Kansans.
“You’ve got my vote!” said Ron Barnhart, 80, a retired doctor.
Around the corner, Tom Bruce, 72, said he was voting no. “I don’t trust the Kansas legislature to do the right thing. Abortion is already restricted enough here,” he said.
Driving from Johnson county to meet more canvassers in the working-class and more ethnically diverse area of Wyandotte county, the purple signage of the yes campaign gives way to the yellow and black sunflowers of no.
There, a 58-year-old pre-school teacher, who asked not to be named, said she was in a moral conundrum.
“I’d rather not do a yes or a no,” she said, wringing her hands. “I just keep saying it’s a little human being – I’m a Catholic.”
“But I also keep on thinking about what happened to that little girl, who was 10, and was forced to travel for an abortion after being raped. It’s just inhumane.”
She doesn’t know if she’ll vote in Tuesday’s election.