Published July 21st, 2022 at 6:00 AM
Patrice Mendoza stood on the outdoor stage in the sweltering midsummer heat, stripped down to lilac-colored, sequin-encrusted lingerie.
She’s a natural performer, a plus-sized burlesque star. But this part of her appearance before the crowd at Mill Creek Park was deeply personal, less about art and more about her life as a Black queer woman.
Mendoza is among the nearly one in four women who have had an abortion by the age of 45, according to a 2017 report by researchers for the Guttmacher Institute.
“I’ve birthed two babies, but I had to go through the trauma of an abortion,” Mendoza, of Overland Park, said.
Her voice rising but steady, she began to offer details of her experience with the issue that has gripped America in recent weeks, since the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
She had sworn that her two children would never know the poverty and dysfunction that defined her childhood, one marked by her mother’s struggles with sickle cell anemia. She discovered that she was pregnant as finances were dire and she was struggling with her mental health.
“It’s an emotional guilt,” she said in an interview later, that her household wasn’t stable enough to support another child.
Her husband was completely supportive, telling her that, ultimately, the decision was hers to make.
“It was not an easy decision, but I’m glad that I had the choice to make it,” Mendoza said. “What I do know is that anybody who makes legislation not making abortion legal has never had to deal with it themselves, including women who have voted for this.”
The rally last Saturday, one of many held in recent weeks, encapsulated why the national press is hyper-focused on the Midwest.
Following the Supreme Court decision, access to abortion will now be governed state-by-state, creating a hodge-podge of differing regulations. The rules will range from regulated, but available, in clinics to outright bans even in cases of rape and incest, with few exceptions, such as a dire medical emergency to save the life of the mother.
It’s an ever-shifting legal and legislative jigsaw puzzle. Abortion rights advocates are attempting to provide facts to counter rumors while creating systems to shuttle women to states like Kansas, where abortion remains legal – at least for now.
A mobile clinic offering two-step abortion pills has been set up at the Kansas-Colorado border. And a volunteer-run fund to pay for abortions of low-income Kansans is seeing a huge increase in small-dollar donations.
Elsewhere, anti-abortion advocates are seeking to bolster the capacity of pregnancy centers where women can receive a pregnancy test, be counseled about adoption, or be offered limited help after the birth, with things like diapers and baby clothes.
Missouri has some of the strictest statutes governing abortion, outlawing it in all but some medical emergencies. There are no exceptions for rape, incest or human trafficking.
For now, Kansas protects the right to an abortion because of a 2019 state Supreme Court decision.
On Aug. 2, Kansas voters will decide on a constitutional amendment that could nullify the state court’s ruling, opening the issue up to a conservative-leaning legislature. Many believe passing the new amendment, which is being promoted under the slogan “Value Them Both,” will eventually lead to a near ban on abortion within a year.
“We need you to vote,” Imije Ninaz, founder of the Nafasi Center of Kansas City, shouted into the microphone at the rally organized by the Reale Justice Network, which advocates locally for social justice issues impacting Black and Indigenous communities. “And we need you to vote the right way, for all of the people who aren’t represented.”
The phrasing is a nod to frustration with women who have voted Republican in recent years, perhaps not cognizant that overturning Roe v. Wade has long been the target of far-right edges of the party.
In her remarks, Mendoza also spoke to the racially mixed crowd, but especially to white women who have turned out in recent weeks dressed up in Handmaid’s Tale garb. The outfit implies that for them, overturning Roe v. Wade is a dystopian nightmare, like the book and televised series by the same name.
The deep red robes and little white bonnets are too quaintly performative, causing eye rolls, if not outright anger among some Black activists. The wearers don’t seem to recognize that Black women’s reproductive freedom and access to high-quality prenatal and other health care have always been limited and unequal.
Black women already had some of the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality before the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. The reversal of Roe v. Wade is expected to exacerbate existing problems in gaining care. But advocates point out that Black people are used to being on the defense.
Now, even solidly middle-class, pro-choice people are stunned by the pace of the recent changes, questioning how a 50-year-old right to a very private decision came tumbling down.
“Stop acting like you are the first victims of this overturning,” Mendoza, who performs under the name Lola Loquacious, admonished the crowd at Mill Creek Park. “And start fighting and listening when Black women tell you, what … is going on.”
Judy McMullen has some regrets.
She traveled far from her Kansas roots, and then returned, both physically and intellectually.
It’s why she was lugging a “Value Them Both” yard sign to her car one recent afternoon, having picked it up at a Shawnee, Kansas, campaign office pressing for the amendment’s passage.
Decades ago, as a nurse, she participated in abortions. The California and Hawaii hospitals where she worked would have allowed her to opt out of helping with the procedure.
But McMullen said that she wasn’t brave enough to counter the feminist mindsets of that era. There was a code of acceptable views within the nursing staff, she said.
“We always made fun of everyone who said, ‘No, I won’t do it,’ “ McMullen said.
But she’s disturbed by the memories, the loss of life, and the images that she remembers, especially when a C-section was involved.
“We didn’t have to scrub in on it,” she said.
In 2022, the Value Them Both campaign is offering her a chance to stand against abortion. She plans to vote “yes.”
At 22, Mackenzie Haddix, deputy communications director for the Value Them Both Coalition, said that she’s long been anti-abortion, deciding at a very young age. She grew up in Junction City, Kansas, as her father was in the military and stationed at Ft. Riley.
“The whole issue with abortion is that it doesn’t matter, in my opinion, if you are Democrat or Republican,” she said. “This is a moral issue.”
She insists that the campaign seeks only to have the legislature enact “reasonable limits on the abortion industry,” pushing back against critics who point out that if the amendment passes, the legislature is conservative enough to pass laws that could mirror those in Missouri.
“Kansas is stuck with a very unique situation where unless we pass the Value Them Both amendment we can’t even have a discussion,” Haddix said.
A key argument of the Value Them Both campaign is that the court ruling that found the state’s constitution protects the right to terminate a pregnancy, in effect, has taken the issue away from voters.
Also of concern for Value Them Both supporters is the fact that the number of abortions being performed in Kansas is rising. They fear that trend will continue as women come from other states to receive help.
According to state figures from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, there were 7,849 abortions performed in Kansas in 2021. About half were from Kansas and nearly all of the others were from Missouri.
Nearly 70% terminated the pregnancy within the first two months. And more than 67% of abortions were done by use of a pill, mifepristone.
Missouri had only one clinic, across the state in St. Louis. After the overturning of Roe v. Wade, access has shifted to Illinois.
Kansas has four clinics where abortions can be obtained, two in Overland Park and two in Wichita.
In 2017, some 98% of Kansas counties had no clinics that provided abortions, and 61% of Kansas women lived in those counties, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
“Kansans don’t want our state to become a destination for abortion,” Haddix said. “We don’t want laws like California and New York. We just want reasonable limits on the abortion industry to protect women.”
There are limits to the procedure in Kansas.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, public funding is available for abortions in Kansas only in the case of life endangerment, rape or incest. An abortion may be performed at 20 or more weeks postfertilization (22 weeks after the last menstrual period) only in cases of life or severely compromised physical health.
The patient must undergo an ultrasound and be offered the chance to view it before procedures and also receive state-approved counseling, followed by a 24-hour wait period. Minors must have parental consent.
Value Them Both has also leveraged the power of the Catholic Church, in addition to the decades-long advocacy of organizations like Kansans For Life.
The Rev. Joseph F. Naumann is the Archbishop of Kansas City in Kansas, and recently appeared on Kansas City PBS’ “Week In Review,” where he decried the recent vandalism at Ascension Catholic Church and its school in Overland Park.
Spray paint was used to write “My Body My Choice” across one side of the school building, along with other crude comments. A white statue of the Virgin Mary was splattered with red paint.
Parishioners quickly reacted, scrubbing the paint away.
“This is an effort of intimidation to try and silence the church,” Naumann said to “Week in Review” host Nick Haines.
The church has also drawn criticism from some who cite the separation of church and state for entering into what they see as a political issue. But the amendment isn’t the same as advocating for a political candidate and goes to the core belief and history of the church within social justice movements, Naumann countered.
“We do believe it’s our responsibility to speak about human rights issues, and fundamental rights and to form the consciences of our people,” he said. “You know, the churches really were the leaders of the civil rights movement. And so, I think those that want to silence the churches really, that’s a very un-American activity.”
The archbishop also emphasized that public policy advocacy is a part of pastoral initiatives.
“I think what will happen is the people of Kansas will be able to determine what the public policy will be on the protection of the unborn and the protection of women from the abortion industry,” Naumann said.
In a way, the vote on the amendment will be a test of often-cited polling that shows most people are in support of abortion, with clear limits and guidelines for the safety procedures of clinics.
Statewide polling conducted by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University in December of 2021 asked several questions about abortion. The poll found that that more than 60% of respondents disagreed that abortion should be completely illegal in Kansas, even in cases where a woman’s life or health is at risk from a pregnancy, where a woman becomes pregnant due to incest, and where a woman becomes pregnant due to rape.
Alesha E. Doan, a University of Kansas professor, has spent decades studying reproductive policy and law, writing books and conducting some of the leading research on women who have had abortions.
Doan, 50, doesn’t expect to see reproductive rights restored during her lifetime.
The assessment is based on a firm understanding of not only how court systems have begun to lean conservative in recent decades, but also the makeup of state legislatures and efforts to gerrymander districts, making it far more difficult to unseat incumbents or flip a seat from one party to another.
It’s how both Kansas and Missouri wound up with hyper-conservative legislatures, controlled by politicians who are anti-abortion.
Gerrymandering, and other tricks of politics, “have been happening in earnest for decades,” Doan said.
“The tyranny of the minority can hold the majority hostage,” she said.
And yet, much of this seemingly escaped some people’s notice, perhaps because it was so incremental.
Doan places some blame on the pro-choice movement.
It focused heavily on national politics, failing to keep an eye on activism around state and local elections. Yet state and local are where decisions are made that have power over people’s lives.
The narrative around abortion also does not always reflect reality.
Again, the pro-abortion rights movement has tended to hyper-focus on women who must have the procedure to save their lives, or in cases of extreme abnormalities of the developing fetus.
But those cases are a tiny fraction of the overall abortions, Doan said.
It’s a frame that’s comfortable, pulling at heartstrings and evoking empathy for the family involved.
The problem is that this shifted away from pressing for an understanding of abortion as part of reproductive health, or as a social justice issue, given that Black women have always struggled disproportionately to obtain high-quality health care.
There is an opportunity here also, Doan said. The nation could “get it right” in the future, elevating the voices of people of color and weaving reproductive rights together with so many social justice and equity measures (such as climate and environmental factors of health care).
It’s a reproductive justice view and a long-term goal also shared by many Black advocates, who shape their work around holistic community actions. They hope the nation could, eventually, come to see abortion care as a central component of equity.
Educating more people about the specifics of how Roe was overturned also is crucial, other scholars said. They emphasized that the situation will likely become more dire for pro-choice advocates, before anything changes.
Many people assume that overturning Roe immediately criminalized abortion, said Yvette Lindgren, associate professor of law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Rather, Lindgren said, the decision “removed the federal floor that protected access to abortion and returned the issue to the states.”
“It shifted abortion to a political question,” Lindgren said. “It has put an issue of essential health care into the hands of state legislatures.”
In deciding the ruling, the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court justices took an approach that is termed originalism, or pure textualism, Lindgren said.
“They argued that, when a right is not specifically named, like abortion, the court has to do an analysis to determine if the right can be implied in the text of the Constitution,” she said.
Lindgren teaches courses in the family law program, including Family Law, Children and the Law, Law, Medicine & Bioethics, and Adoption & Assisted Reproduction.
Like Doan, she is not optimistic about the future of reproductive rights being restored quickly, or without many political and policy fights.
Lindgren expects that as soon as there is a Republican majority in Congress, it will likely pass a fetal personhood law to outlaw abortion.
“I think we are at a point of being temporarily allowed to have abortion in some states and not in others,” she said. “But I think that in the coming years … we will likely have a nationwide ban on abortion based on fetal personhood.”
Mary Sanchez is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. Cody Boston is a video producer for Kansas City PBS. Vicky Diaz-Camacho, who covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS, contributed to the reporting of this story. Annie Jennemann, a Dow Jones data journalism reporting intern, created the graphics.