Government & Politics

National group challenges Kansas telemedicine abortion ban on behalf of Wichita clinic

The Wichita Eagle

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the name of the clinic.

A national organization is challenging a Kansas law that prohibits a Wichita women’s clinic from providing abortions via telemedicine to patients in rural communities of the state.

The Center for Reproductive Rights filed suit in Johnson County on behalf of Trust Women Wichita, which operates at the site of the former clinic of George Tiller, a doctor who was stalked and shot to death at his church by an abortion opponent in 2009.

Trust Women has used two-way audio-video telemedicine technology to provide medication abortion services to women who live in remote rural parts of the state, according to a statement from the center.

The lawsuit seeks to block implementation of the Kansas Telemedicine Act, which was passed in March and is due to take effect on Jan. 1.

That law requires that a doctor be physically present when the patient takes an abortion-inducing drug called Mifepristone, also known as RU-486.

Supporters of abortion rights have argued for years that such restrictions are unnecessary and it’s better for women to take the drug at home because of cramping and vaginal bleeding that are part of the drug’s normal operation.

The court filing says the Kansas Legislature singled out abortion for prohibition for political reasons while allowing the use of telemedicine for more complicated and dangerous treatments including autism diagnosis, cardiology, oncology/hematology, pain management and pediatrics.

“By treating women seeking abortions differently from similarly-situated patients seeking all other forms of medical care delivered via telemedicine, the Act violates the rights of Plaintiff’s patients to equal protection under the law,” the lawsuit said. “The Act further violates Plaintiff’s rights to equal protection by treating them differently from all other health care providers who provide health care via telemedicine without a rational basis to do so.”

State Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita was part of the conservative bloc that passed the abortion telemedicine exception.

“We’re a pro-life state, so that’s why” it was in the bill, Whitmer said.

He said he thinks the law will survive court challenge.

“No matter what they (abortion rights supporters) want to say and no matter what cockamamie interpretations the Kansas Supreme Court might come up with, in our Constitution, there is no right to an abortion,” Whitmer said.

The lawsuit comes two days after the biggest political victory of the last eight years for abortion-rights supporters in Kansas, Sen. Laura Kelly’s election as governor.

On the campaign trail, Kelly, a Democrat, touted her 100 percent voting record against abortion-restricting bills and said it would not be enough to just veto future bills. During the campaign she called for rolling back some abortion bills she thinks went too far.

In January, Kelly will replace the staunchly anti-abortion Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer, who took over from Gov. Sam Brownback, who had vowed to sign any anti-abortion bill the Legislature could send to his desk.

“I would assume that the incoming governor will scrutinize those bills a bit more,” said Julie Burkhart, the founder and chief executive officer of Trust Women and a former spokeswoman and political assistant to Tiller.

She said Kelly’s win is a clear victory for abortion rights and women’s rights in Kansas, but there’s still pressure for advocates to work hard because the Legislature hasn’t changed much.

“I’m incredibly happy she’s been elected governor, but we definitely still have our work cut out in the Legislature,” she said. “I can’t speak for her of course, (but) then it’s also our job as advocates to help make sure we have lawmakers who are going to back her up.”

The lawsuit also dropped the same day as Trust Women is holding its annual fund-raising gala, this year featuring as keynote speaker Willie Parker, a Mississippi physician who performs abortion and has been criss-crossing the country advocating for abortion rights.

He highlights that legal barriers to abortion services target primarily poor women — including states like Kansas that ban abortion coverage from regular public and private insurance.

Wealthier women have money to travel and to pay for the procedures out of pocket if necessary, he said.

Burkhart said the Wichita clinic has had only three patients whose abortions were covered in the past 5 1/2 years.

Parker said he’s speaking across the country “to model what I think an engaged health-care professional should be in terms of advocacy, being beyond just the health-care system, but looking broader at the context of the peoples’ lives who seek us for care.”

“It’s also been to pose a counter-narrative to the most toxic expression of religious opposition to reproductive rights, because it’s been that conflation of personal religious beliefs with politics that has resulted in the policies where we now have the rights of women being compromised around abortion, even though abortion remains legal with the Roe (v. Wade) decision,” he said.

Politics reporter Dion Lefler contributed to this story.