Abortion legislation in Kansas this session is about ‘tweaks’

The Kansas Statehouse preservation and restoration project included the complete restoration of the exterior masonry on the building. (January 22, 2014)
The Kansas Statehouse preservation and restoration project included the complete restoration of the exterior masonry on the building. (January 22, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

Abortion is a perpetual agenda item for the Kansas Legislature, and this session is no different. But instead of setting new policy, a measure slated for a House committee vote this week would make small changes to existing laws.

The bill before the House Federal and State Affairs Committee, pushed by abortion opponents, tackles two issues raised by abortion providers in state and federal lawsuits challenging anti-abortion laws enacted last year. One piece revises a requirement that the home pages of abortion providers’ websites link to a state health department site with information about pregnancy and fetal development. Other parts revise the language in various provisions of the law dealing with medical emergencies in which abortion restrictions are waived.

Planned Parenthood says its official stance is neutral on the legislation. Kansans for Life, the most influential anti-abortion group at the Statehouse, sees the changes as improvements that could help enforce existing laws. But this year’s measure is nowhere near as dramatic as other proposals enacted under Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, a strong abortion opponent, and it’s a far cry from laws enacted in Arkansas and North Dakota last year to ban abortions in the first few months of pregnancy.

“It’s just technical clarifications,” said committee chairman Rep. Steve Brunk, a Wichita Republican who opposes abortion.

The committee is scheduled to debate the bill Tuesday and members are expected to approve it, sending the measure to the entire House for debate. Both legislative chambers have strong anti-abortion majorities, and Brownback so far has signed every abortion restriction bill sent to him since taking office in 2011.

Since then, Kansas has tightened limits on late-term abortions, banned sex-selection abortions, restricted private health insurance coverage for elective procedures, prohibited providers from furnishing materials or instructors for public school sexuality courses and blocked potential tax breaks for abortion providers.

The attorney general’s office has paid two private law firms more than $1 million since 2011 to defend anti-abortion laws in court. And federal and state lawsuits have blocked enforcement of the website rule, special health and safety regulations for abortion providers and a law denying some federal funds to Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, which performs abortions at its Overland Park clinic. Last year, a Shawnee County judge blocked enforcement of new language on medical emergencies after two doctors argued it would be nearly impossible for a woman in crisis to obtain an abortion.

Planned Parenthood lobbyist Elise Higgins said the organization is neutral on this year’s bill because, “it doesn’t actively create new, bad policy.”

“In previous years, we’ve been battling legislation that restricts women’s access to health care,” Higgins said.

Abortion providers, despite already linking to the state health department site from their websites, have attacked the website requirement in court. Not all providers link from home pages, and the requirement enacted last year mandates that the link come with a statement that the state’s information is “objective, nonjudgmental” and “scientifically accurate.” The providers disagree with the assessment and contend their free speech rights are being violated.

This year’s bill strikes the requirement for the statement to appear with the link. Kathy Ostrowski, Kansans for Life’s legislative director, said abortion opponents aren’t backing off their endorsement of the state’s information but are taking a practical step to get the rest of the requirement enforced, so that women have an easier time accessing the state’s material.

“That is our greater interest,” she said.

Ostrowski said the problem blocking enforcement of the language about medical emergencies is “a small bump” and noted that abortion opponents predicted last year it could be fixed easily. She said the bill makes multiple references to medical emergencies in abortion laws consistent.

“It really is just a technical tweak,” she said.

As for new, sweeping anti-abortion measures for the Legislature to consider, Kansans for Life has resisted advocating for those, fearing rulings by the U.S. and Kansas supreme courts could undo past restrictions. Five of the seven Kansas Supreme Court justices were appointed by former Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson, Democrats who supported abortion rights.

Kansans for Life leaders have argued that incremental steps are more effective in decreasing abortion.

“We are committed to this approach,” Ostrowski said.

But Higgins, Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights advocates are on guard, having seen the wave of laws enacted in the past three years.

Higgins said of this year’s bill, “It is not the end of abortion legislation.”

Information about this year’s abortion bill: http://bit.ly/Mz1NcA

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature