Steven Spielberg among donors in $22m Kansas campaign on abortion

Pro-choice side prevailed by 18 percentage points, or 165,000 votes, in referendum

Director Steven Spielberg and his wife, Kate Capshaw, donated tens of thousands of dollars to abortion rights in Kansas. AFP
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Abortion opponents and rights advocates together spent more than $22 million on a ballot question this month in Kansas, and famed film director and producer Steven Spielberg contributed to the effort to affirm the right to the procedure.

Finance reports filed by 40 groups and individuals with the state as of this week showed that abortion rights supporters spent $11.3m on their campaign to defeat a proposed amendment to the Kansas state constitution to allow the Republican-controlled legislature to further restrict or ban abortion.

Abortion opponents who pushed the measure spent about $11.1m.

In the Kansas vote on August 2, the abortion rights side prevailed by 18 percentage points or 165,000 votes. It was the first state referendum on abortion after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade.

“What it did was give huge fuel to the 'no' campaign because we didn’t any longer have to say to people: ‘This could happen or this might be what the legislature will do’ or any other hypothetical,” said former Democratic governor Kathleen Sebelius, also a former US health and human services secretary.

“They could watch in real time as Missouri shut down abortion.”

Two Republican activists have forced a hand recount of the August 2 vote in nine counties accounting for 59 per cent of the ballots cast. They have questioned the conduct of the election without providing evidence of problems.

Other Kansas abortion opponents argue that their cause was defeated mainly by out-of-state donors and groups with ties to abortion providers.

“The people and their elected legislators now have no recourse to use the tools of democracy to enact laws that reflect consensus,” Mallory Carroll, representative of the national anti-abortion group Susan B Anthony Pro-Life America, said after the vote.

Spielberg, Oscar-winning director of films such as Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saving Private Ryan and Jurassic Park, contributed $25,000 to the main group opposing the proposed amendment. His wife, actress Kate Capshaw, contributed an additional $25,000.

While notable, their donations were far from the largest to the “vote no” campaign. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who ran for president in 2020, contributed $1.25m, and the Sixteen Thirty Fund, which finances liberal causes, contributed nearly $1.5m.

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In addition, Planned Parenthood affiliates and other abortion rights groups contributed almost $2.3m to the main “vote no” coalition. But more than 30 other groups and individuals reported raising funds for their own efforts to defeat the proposed amendment.

On the anti-abortion side, Roman Catholic dioceses and the Kansas Catholic Conference contributed more than $4.3m to the main coalition pushing the proposed amendment.

Kansans for Life, the state's most politically influential group, not only spent $1.6m on its own pro-amendment efforts but also contributed more than $1.1m to the main “vote yes” group.

In addition, Susan B Anthony Pro-Life has said it spent $1.4m on bringing a team of 300 college students from across the US to Kansas to canvass in favour of the proposed amendment.

The activists seeking the recount also must file finance reports, Mark Skoglund, the executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission said this week. But one of them, Mark Gietzen, disputed that in a text to the Associated Press, saying they are “working on election Integrity”, not promoting the ballot initiative.

Seven of the nine counties recounting ballots were wrapped up or expected to wrap up by Friday. Only the two most populous counties — Johnson in the Kansas City area and Sedgwick, home to Wichita — expected to continue counting on Saturday.

So far, the totals are mostly the same, with no more than four votes changing. Officials said the changes are a mix of human error and how voters marked their mail-in ballots. In one case, a voter put a check mark in the oval that wasn’t picked up by the scanning machine.

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Updated: August 20, 2022, 4:37 AM