The confusion over ‘choice’ in Kansas

Republicans in Kansas argue the government shouldn't regulate vaccines or masks, but should regulate womens' bodies in the case of abortion. Examples like this show that what 'choice' means depends on the political power defining it.



August 13, 2021 - 12:57 PM

A healthcare professional holds a vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. (Jacob King/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

That the beliefs which political parties express — like the Republican party and “conservatism” or the Democratic party and “liberalism” — are best understood as packages of ideas, which can be re-packaged and re-arranged as political elites find it useful to do so, is hardly a new idea. Still, the use of “choice” in Kansas politics is a good reminder of this fact.

A year from now the “Value Them Both” amendment will be on the ballot. If it passes, it would invalidate the Kansas Supreme Court ruling that our state constitution includes a guaranteed right to access abortion services. 

It is, therefore, a “pro-life” amendment, which generally aims to protect fetal life rather than protect the right of women to make certain medical choices. Those committed to passing this amendment likely don’t care what language is used — but when it comes to winning a statewide election, language matters, and that is where some Kansas voters may find the messages they hear confusing.

Why? Because those who have historically organized to defend the right to abortion — and thus would oppose the passage of the amendment — have tended to emphasize trusting women’s choices. And that “pro-choice” language is pretty similar to that which many prominent Republican supporters of the proposed amendment have relied upon throughout the pandemic.

The words of Senator Ty Masterson, a Republican leader who has consistently opposed various public health restrictions proposed by Governor Laura Kelly, a Democrat, over the past year and a half, is emblematic. As low vaccination rates led to a recent surge in a deadly COVID variant across Kansas, and Kelly mandated a return to masks for state employees in an attempt to control its spread, Masterson strongly dissented. He stated that when it comes to personal medical decisions, the government needs to trust Kansans’ choices and “stop telling people how to live.”

Such a libertarian insistence upon personal choice and responsibility is perfectly compatible with many well-established arrangements of conservative thought. But it is also arguably in contradiction to the effort to remove a guaranteed right to choose to access abortion services. 

Thus will a few conservative Kansas voters perhaps find themselves perplexed. If the pandemic taught you to strongly affirm that the government should respect the free choices of the people when it comes to getting vaccinated or wearing a mask, then why would you also affirm that the government should restrict free choices when it comes to abortion?

Of course, the reason I wrote “perhaps” above is because ideas can always be re-packaged. If necessary, conservative leaders in Kansas will surely find ways to insist that the free choice not to get vaccinated and the free choice to obtain an abortion are completely different ideas, and so there is no contradiction in honoring the first while limiting the second. 

Depending upon the reasoning used, they won’t be wrong. (And remember all of this goes for Democrats as well, who can equally arrange their liberal ideas so as to defend one person’s personal right to choose abortion while also denying another person’s personal right to refuse to wear a mask.)

What’s the upshot of all this? Perhaps simply that the principle of being free to make personal choices in America depends upon how the parties that win elections justify it. The next time you hear a politician insist that their beliefs about what the people should be free to choose are built upon bedrock ideological principles, remember that in politics, even bedrock can change.

Dr. Russell Arben Fox teaches politics at Friends University in Wichita.