Kansas House advances ‘conscience’ protection for drugs that might cause abortion

The Kansas House is moving into the birth control debate with a bill that would allow pharmacists to bow out of providing drugs they believe might cause an abortion.

The chamber tentatively agreed Wednesday to advance the bill, which is primarily intended to broaden the legal protections for health care providers who don’t want to be involved in the abortion procedure.

Critics of the bill, however, are pouncing on language that would bar anyone from being required to prescribe or administer a drug they “reasonably believe” might result in the termination of a pregnancy.

They believe the law would open the door for a pharmacist to refuse a request for something like the “morning-after” pill, which the Mayo Clinic says can prevent or delay ovulation, block fertilization or keep a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.

Advocates who testified for the measure “made it very clear that the purpose of this bill was to allow them to refuse to provide birth control,” said Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Sarah Gillooly. “It was very clear in committee that this was about birth control. I think that’s unfortunate.”

She said such a law would affect most every woman in Kansas, especially those in small towns and rural communities since the health provider wouldn’t be required to provide a referral somewhere else.

Republican state Rep. Lance Kinzer of Olathe is sponsoring the bill, which is up for a final vote today. Kinzer said the bill is intended to cover the abortion drug RU-486, not contraceptive medications — although he would be OK if conscience protections extended that far.

“The bill’s very clearly drafted to say that it only applies where there’s a termination of pregnancy,” Kinzer said. “I’m no medical expert and so I leave it to others to talk about which specific drugs are, in fact, abortion-inducing.”

To be protected under the law from being fired, Kinzer said, a pharmacist would need “reasonable medical basis” to believe the drug would cause an abortion.

If someone were fired for refusing to provide a drug, he said, he or she could file a lawsuit and then litigate whether there was a basis for believing the drug would cause an abortion.

He said the conscience protection would apply to any drug that would cause harm to an embryo after it is fertilized.

“We could have extended this protection all the way even to standard contraception. We didn’t because we wanted to avoid that debate,” he said.

The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony from the bill’s supporters who talked about their reluctance to provide the morning-after pill.

A Topeka pharmacist — a Roman Catholic — told the committee that it was “clear” that all contraceptive products had the potential to cause an abortion. Daniel Sutherland told lawmakers he wanted to remove all contraceptive products from his business but didn’t for fear of being sued.

“It is not my desire to foist my religion on anybody. However, I should be free to exercise my conscience without fear of reprisal,” Sutherland told the committee in written testimony.

So-called conscience clauses, like the one debated Wednesday, have been around for more than 40 years following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1973 that legalized abortion.

Since 1970, Kansas has had a law on the books that said no one should be required to perform or participate in abortion procedure.

But in recent years across the country, the issue has moved to pharmaceuticals, particularly those given in an emergency to prevent a pregnancy. The morning-after pill is not the same as RU-486, which is used to chemically induce an abortion.

Four states — Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and South Dakota — have laws that allow pharmacists to refuse to fill an emergency prescription for contraceptives, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Three others — Florida, Maine and Tennessee — have broad refusal measures that don’t specifically mention pharmacists, the group says.