The War Over Public Opinion: Part 1

The following is the first of a three part series, titled “The War Over Public Opinion: The Impact of Interest Groups on Anti-Abortion Policy in Kansas.” It was written for an undergraduate political science course at the University of Kansas taught by Dr. Alesha Doan.” As a note: I choose to use the terms “anti-abortion” instead of “pro-life” because I am specifically referring to the medical procedure of abortion and not other specific representations of women’s reproductive rights. 

From 2010 to the present, interest groups in Kansas have influenced anti-abortion legislation by employing a variety of tactics to shift public opinion. I will illustrate the methods these groups use to change public attitudes and examine whether it is public opinion or elite interest groups that ultimately affect anti-abortion legislation. I will also attempt to address the following questions:

  • How did interest groups come to power in Kansas?
  • What in the state of Kansas has allowed interest groups to be successful?
  • How do groups shift public opinion?
  • Is public opinion or influencing legislators ultimately more effective in producing anti-abortion legislation?

This topic holds importance as it calls into questions Kansas’ system of democracy and probes whether spreading certain narratives or misinformation to the public should be more highly regulated, if that information is damaging to democratic expression. In addition, Kansas is unique when it comes to abortion-restrictive legislation and has produced both a large quantity and variety of anti-abortion bills (Gold & Nash 2012).

Anti-abortion activists shift tactics

In the United States, there are numerous sects of the anti-abortion or pro-life movement. It would be spreading false information to suggest that all activists in this area hold the same beliefs or use the same methods to further their agenda. Despite these differences, a sudden shift toward violence in the movement began in the 1960s when abortion was portrayed as “America’s Armageddon” by a small, but powerful group of anti-abortion advocates (Mason 2002). Carol Mason asserts that the trend toward violence was furthered in the 1970s by “Christian politics and the post-Vietnam paramilitary culture” that pervaded the attitudes of the time.

By the 1990s, the mainstream anti-abortion movement had taken up this responsibility, “narrating abortion as an apocalyptic battle between so-called Christian and anti-Christian forces” (Mason 2002).

The idea of violence as a method to combat clinic providers and the pro-choice movement was cemented with the murder of an abortion provider, Dr. David Gunn, in Florida in 1993 (Kaplan 1995).

The pro-life movement spent many years complimentary to the current stages of the pro-choice movement: advocacy through lobbying and other conventional means. The murder  discussed above was the start of a change in the movement, through which the current pro-life movement focusing on “defensive action” on behalf of unborn fetuses now stems. Many of the leaders of this violent time are in prison for their actions, but the movement is still strong (Kaplan 1995). Even in recent years, organizations commend those who resort to extremes to achieve the mission of the movement. Operation Rescue, one of the most powerful pro-life Christian activist organizations in the nation, honored Phill Kline, the Kansas Attorney General at the time, as their Man of the Year in 2006. Kline investigated abortion provider George Tiller for over two years, pressing for access to Tiller’s medical records in an attempt to force him to close his clinic (Simon 2006). Kline argued that Tiller had performed abortions on 30 women for depression, which Kline argued is “not a valid reason for a late-term abortion under Kansas law because the woman’s major bodily functions are not irreversibly threatened” (Simon 2006). These actions – both violent and through legal means –  clearly target abortion providers and reflect the shift away from simply working to influence public opinion and lobbying legislators to direct, assertive action.

Kansas leadership takes a far-right turn

The increasingly conservative political atmosphere in Kansas has allowed anti-abortion interest groups to thrive in recent years. In an article from the New York Times in 2012, John Eligon traces the movement toward conservatism in Kansas, which he said began in the late 1980s (Eligon 2012). In 1990, the shift came into focus during an “uprising that would propel those reptilian Republicans from a tiny splinter group into the state’s dominant political faction… wreck[ing] what remained of the state’s progressive legacy” (Binelli 2013). That uprising, which centered around abortion, included a familiar interest group – Operation Rescue.
kochspendingNow, conservative legislators are driving out more moderate or centrist legislators, like the historical Kansan greats Bob Dole, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nancy Kassebaum (Elison 2012). When Governor Sam Brownback was elected in 2010, he brought with him an influx of spending from libertarian and conservatively minded interest groups and Political Action Committees. Brownback has often been accused of “using Kansas as a sort of laboratory, in which ideas cooked up by Koch-funded libertarian think tanks can be released like viruses on live subjects” (Binelli 2013). During the primary election, conservative, agenda-driven interest groups spent millions of dollars ousting moderate legislators. In this way, they achieved the ideal situation for anti-abortion bills to pass.

Furthermore, Binelli describes that these groups, “like Americans for Prosperity (a lobbying group founded by the Koch brothers), the Kansas Chamber of Commerce (run by former Koch employees), the Club for Growth and Kansans for Life” spent together somewhere between $3 and $8 million in outside spending that election (Binelli 2013). Kari Ann Rinker further explores the development and complete takeover of the state, dubbed “Brownbackistan” by critics of the governor (Rinker 2012). She notes that many of the candidates that were unseated during the 2012 election had voted for at least some anti-choice policies. In addition, some legislators were targeted by Americans for Prosperity and the various Koch PACs had 100 percent anti-choice voting records (Rinker 2012). By installing a conservative governor, ousting moderate members of the legislature and adding millions of dollars of campaign funding from far-right interest groups, the takeover of the state was completed. Now, Rinker asserts, Kansas is becoming the most “socially and fiscally regressive state in the nation” (Rinker 2012).

An influx of abortion restrictions

Because of the heavy influence of conservative interest groups on the state legislature, Kansas has passed a number of unique restrictions on abortion in recent years. The year 2011 in particular, was significant for anti-abortion legislation nationally; the states adopted 135 new reproductive health provisions, compared to the 89 enacted in 2010 and 77 in 2009. In addition, “legislators in all 50 states introduced more than 1,100 provisions related to reproductive health and rights” (Gold & Nash 2012). In Kansas, bills were enacted that banned abortion at 20 weeks from fertilization and restricted the use of telemedicine for medication abortions. This means that the physician prescribing the medication must be in the room with the patient, which creates barriers for women seeking access to abortion in rural areas (Gold & Nash 2012).

dt.common.streams.StreamServerGold and Nash conclude that is takes an abundance of time and resources to defend bills that attack reproductive freedoms in moderate states as well as in blanket conservative states such as Kansas. Hanna further examines this assertion in his article from the Associated Press. In the last three years, Kansas has paid private law firms more than $1 million defending anti-abortion laws, which abortion providers follow with federal and state lawsuits (Hanna 2014). Hanna points out that “litigation costs include $179,000 in attorneys’ fees and expenses associated with federal and state lawsuits filed over restrictions enacted just last year” (Hanna 2014). As evidenced, the legislature and state government have invested significant resources in recent years to eliminate a woman’s right to reproductive freedoms. Interest groups too, contribute to these wide-reaching restrictions.

A bibliography for this paper is available here. The series will continue at the links below.

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