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This week’s Kansas abortion vote through the eyes of a 50-year activist

Sarah Jane Russell, 68, describes the "unreal" day and her equally unreal lifetime of advocacy.

Sarah Jane Russell has been a sexual health and reproductive rights activist on the ground in Lawrence, Kansas for 50 years and counting. She seemed like the perfect person to speak to in light of the state’s resounding “NO” vote on Tuesday to deny a constitutional amendment that would’ve taken away the right to an abortion.

Her activism began in 1972 as a student at University of Kansas where she and others helped establish a rape crisis center on campus, something near and dear to her as a survivor of sexual assault. After graduation she eventually became the center’s executive director, and has spent her career advocating for battered women and children in need—an endeavor that so often overlaps with abortion rights and reproductive care. And now that abortion has been criminalized in neighboring states like Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, the sunflower state has become a safe-haven for access in the south and midwest. 

I asked Sarah Jane the day after the vote to reflect on what she noticed while working the polls, what the rest of the country can take away from this week’s big win in Kansas, and what it was like having the late Dr. George Tiller as her north star for abortion rights. She admits that as an activist she’s not used to being the story, but as we reflect on the history of abortion rights and the troubled times in which we’re living, Sarah Jane’s story serves as a reminder that the arc of moral justice is long, and that no single event is the end. 

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Marisa Kabas: So, I tweeted about the fact that I was going to speak with you and everyone wanted me to say, first and foremost, thank you for everything you’ve done. Monica Lewinsky specifically said thank you. 

Sarah Jane Russell: Oh my goodness. Is that my claim to fame for my whole life? It might be. I have a lot of respect for her, so it means a lot to me. I love that.

MK: How are you feeling after Tuesday’s vote in your home state? 

SJR: I wanted to place myself in a situation where I could see people's eyes. Like, I wanted to see the look on people's faces and I wanted to see really who was coming to vote. So I was able to work [the polls] in a small town called Baldwin City and it hosts Baker University, which is a private school and it might have been even the first University in the state of Kansas. There's agriculture, there's the food industry, there's the school that attracts a lot of different people—faculty and staff from all of the United States. 

People were in line at 7:00AM to vote. So that was my first surprise. I was so anxious to get there that I was there by 6:30. And I just had a chance to be parked on the street and just feel the energy. It was unreal. I think the last number I looked at was 1,079 people voted yesterday in Baldwin City, Kansas.

MK: How does that compare to previous years?

SJR: Well, all I know is that the person who was serving as the electoral supervisor said that he had never seen such a turnout.

It was a lot of eighteen year olds who came in, and they all were unaffiliated for the most part, and all they could vote on was the amendment. (Note: Kansas voters who aren’t registered with a party cannot vote for candidates in primaries.) And I mean, they came in droves. They came with their parents as first-time voters, and their parents seemed so proud of them. And they came on their own, they came as groups, they came as couples. I was blown away. I could not believe it. It was incredible. They were so precious. 

And then I saw this flow of dads come in, and these dads were—I don't know what they do in Baldwin City—but they were just dads. They had their little kids in tow, and some had their daughters in tow, and I thought “you men are voting ‘No.’ I know this.” And I was the one who managed the whole voting room so I saw their expressions when they left. I was able to just engage with them, thanking them for coming in to vote. There was just a knowing. Moms came in—middle-aged moms came in. Women came in. Elder women came in, walking in their walkers. And I was like, oh my God, I'm seeing something here.

MK: How did you get the sense that they were coming in to vote “No”?

SJR: There was an air of determination. I mean, yesterday in Kansas, it was 103 degrees. And the heat index was maybe 110. And you don't come out in that kind of weather if you're not determined to vote on something that means something to you. They could have easily stayed away and just let somebody else do the voting. One man came in his motorized wheelchair in this weather in the afternoon. I was like, dude! 

MK: Do you remember when Roe vs. Wade became law and how you felt at the time?

SJR: Well, we were thrilled because we knew abortion could happen in a safe way and we knew we had people who would pay for things, pay for treatment [via local activism and donors]. So it was joyful because we knew we could make things happen now and that felt good. And felt all in alignment with what was already happening in the seventies. 

MK: Did you think that you would see abortion legalized in your lifetime? 

SJR: No. But we were prepared to do whatever it took regardless. It was this idea of, well, somebody's gonna do this and so we're gonna be the ones [to help people access abortions]. Thinking back, it was never “oh no, we’re defeated.” It was “okay, we'll go down this path since we can't do that path, or we’ll try another path”—and that was pretty characteristic of activism in the seventies. That you didn't really lose that sense of hope about anything. And that’s what was different for all of us this time [when Roe was overturned]. When this hit, there was that sense of my God, where do we go from here?

MK: Did you ever expect to see abortion re-criminalized in your lifetime?

SJR: No, absolutely not. 

It was shocking. And it took a minute to get our anger centered and our thoughts about it centered because it felt like such an attack. And of course, they're not through yet. But this was such a huge message and they're going to have to really think twice about this because this was not just the Democrats that rose up out here. It was unaffiliated voters. I mean, those eighteen-year-olds showed up! And I I think it's a whole new message now to government leadership in the state of Kansas and maybe throughout the United States.

MK: What you think people from out-of-state should understand about Kansan’s attitudes towards abortion?

SJR: I think two things: You have to be committed to out-organizing them [anti-abortion activists]. And that out-organizing has to be in the trenches. It has to be your willingness to have conversations in churches. It has to be the willingness to have the conversations with the person you overhear in the diner who says something outrageous. But it has to be done without your emotions. It has to be factual. I mean, the case of that ten year old girl [in Ohio], when that case came out publicly there were many of us that said, okay, we've been handed a true story here for those people who never believed all of us doing the work. 

MK: Since you were born and raised in Kansas, how do you think it became this safe-haven for abortion in the middle of so many states that have criminalized it? 

SJR: Well, we had the famous Dr. George Tiller in Wichita. I'm sure you've heard of him.

MK: Yes! That was my next question. Did you ever cross paths with him?

SJR: There was a group of us that had gone down to counter-demonstrate when there were people protesting at his clinic one weekend years ago when he was still alive. 

We had Dr. Tiller who showed us the way of commitment and service, and took his oath of being a doctor seriously. And he paid with his life. So, going back to what others can learn from us, it’s about looking for connections, and finding somebody in each area or community—one doctor or one medical group, or even a nun, or a minister or anybody who will stand up and say [abortion] has to exist. So it really is always about the connections, and that is what everybody needs to learn from us. And that you have to just be willing to take all the crap in a big way. 

MK: And it's because of these connections that were forged that you were able to have the success you had yesterday. 

SJR: I believe that to be true with every part of me. That somehow everything was in alignment yesterday. And I don't know how you dissect that, really. The people spoke and they said, “no, you're not going to do this. You’re just not going to do this. This is not going to happen in the state of Kansas.”

MK: And so after this vote, what comes next for for Kansas and abortion?

SJR: I think we just bolster finances. You know, bolster people who are performing the treatments and make sure that we have a fund ready for women if they ever have to travel out of state. I think this has been a huge wake-up call for all of us that we need to put our money back into the work.

MK: Yes, especially with so many women coming from neighboring states. It sounds like the system is completely overwhelmed.

SJR: It is, and I think we will probably see more clinics now. It's kind of the big unknown—but it's better a “big unknown” than what we could have awakened to this morning.

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