Kansans secured a huge win for abortion rights in the US on Tuesday night when they voted to continue to protect abortion in the state constitution.
The race was called by a host of US groups including NBC News, the New York Times and Decision Desk HQ.
The move will be seen as a huge loss for the anti-abortion movement and a major win for abortion rights advocates across America, who will see the result as a bellwether for popular opinion.
Kansas – a deeply conservative and usually reliably Republican state – is the first US state to put abortion rights to a vote since the US supreme court ruled to overturn constitutional protections for abortion in late June.
The state will remain a safe haven for abortion in the midwest, as one of the few states in the region where it remains legal to perform the procedure. Many other states have undertaken moves to make abortion largely illegal since June.
Joe Biden issued a statement welcoming the result. “This vote makes clear what we know: the majority of Americans agree that women should have access to abortion and should have the right to make their own healthcare decisions,” the US president said.
The Kansas state senator Dinah Sikes, a Democrat, cried as the vote came in, and turned to her friends and colleagues, showing them goosebumps on her arm.
“It’s just amazing. It’s breathtaking that women’s voices were heard and we care about women’s health,” she told the Guardian, after admitting she had thought the vote would be close. “But we were close in a lot of rural areas and that really made the difference – I’m just so grateful,” she said.
The “No” campaign – which was protecting abortion rights – was strongly ahead in the referendum with 62% of the vote with the majority of ballots counted. That means millions of dollars lost for the Catholic church who contributed more than $3m trying to eradicate abortion rights in Kansas, according to campaign finance records.
Kansans turned out to vote in heavy numbers on Tuesday, in a referendum brought by the Kansas Republican legislature that was criticized for being misleading, fraught with misinformation and voter suppression tactics.
After failing to get a more directly named referendum, “Kansas No State Constitutional Right to Abortion”, on the ballot in 2020, Republicans switched tactics, naming this amendment “Value Them Both”.
The vote was scheduled for August, when voter turnout is historically low, particularly among independents and Democrats, and the wording on the ballot paper was criticized for being unclear.
“The ballot mentions a state constitutional right to abortion funding in Kansas, but that funding has never really been on the table,” Mary Ziegler, a US abortion law expert from the University of California, Davis told the Guardian on Monday.
Kansans for Life, one of the main backers for a yes vote, told church congregants on 27 July that removing protections for abortion in Kansas would prevent late-term abortions, lack of parental consent and taxpayer funding for abortion, despite none of these being the law in Kansas. Abortions in Kansas are limited to 22 weeks in cases of life threatening or severely compromised physical complications.
It was a tense and bitterly fought campaign that saw churches vandalized and yard signs stolen, in a state where the abortion doctor George Tiller was murdered by anti-abortion activists in 2009.
But on Tuesday night scenes of retirement broke out at a watch party for the victorious No campaign in Kansas City. “We’re free!” shouted Mafutari Oneal, 56, who was working at the bar after the vote was called and a rush of drinks orders came in.
“I don’t want no government telling me what to do. I’m so happy,” she said.
In a speech just after victory was sealed, Rachel Sweet, the campaign manager for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, said the win had come against all the odds.
“We knew it was stacked against us from the moment we started but we did not despair – we did it, and these numbers speak for themselves,” Sweet said.
“We knocked tens of thousands of doors and had hundreds of thousands of phone calls … We countered millions of dollars in misinformation,” she said. “We will not tolerate extreme bans on abortion in our state.”
Ashley All, the spokesperson for KCF, who led the no campaign alongside Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, told the Guardian that the key to driving voter turnout was not seeing abortion as a partisan issue in Kansas.
“We demonstrated Kansas’ free state roots,” she said. “It will be interesting for other states to watch this and see this is not a partisan issue. Everyone from Republicans, to unaffiliated voters to hardcore libertarians came out to say: ‘No, we don’t want the government involved in what we do with our bodies’.”