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Archive for Friday, June 20, 2003

Stance on underage sex criticized

Governor indicates attorney general’s opinion too broad

June 20, 2003

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— Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and a Kansas Medical Society official suggested Thursday a legal opinion issued by Atty. Gen. Phill Kline amounted to a dramatic shift in policy on teenage sex.

But Kline disagreed, defending his position that doctors treating pregnant girls under 16 must report their pregnancies as evidence of suspected child abuse because sex with a girl that age is illegal, no matter what the context.

And former Atty. Gen. Bob Stephan, who wrote an opinion on the issue in 1992, said while Kline's opinion "goes a step further, no question," it does not represent "an earth-shattering change."

Kline released his opinion Wednesday. It dealt only with abortion providers, but later his office said the opinion would apply to other physicians and other people required to report child abuse to authorities under Kansas law.

A previous -- but not universal -- interpretation of the law required a doctor to report an injury to a child, with pregnancy not necessarily considered an injury. The State Board of Healing Arts, which regulates doctors, followed that interpretation.

Jerry Slaughter, executive director of the Kansas Medical Society, argued Kline's position was a "flip-flop on the public policy on this."

"Everyone's sort of in this zone of uncertainty," Slaughter said. "We're sort of at a loss as to what to tell our members."

During a news conference, Sebelius said her staff must review the opinion to determine how broad it is.

"It seems to me to apply to any adults who come in contact with any child under 16 who's pregnant," she said.

She added: "Are parents responsible for reports? Are teachers? Anyone who comes in contact with the child? I mean, I think there are a lot of unanswered questions."

But Kline said the governor was wrong because the list of people required to report suspicions of abuse was limited. The list includes doctors, dentists, psychologists, therapists, nurses, teachers, school administrators, counselors, social workers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel.

"This is a reporting requirement, not a requirement for action," Kline said, adding it was up to local law enforcement officials or the state Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services to determine how to proceed after receiving a report.

Kline also faced questions about how his opinion would apply to two teenagers engaging in consensual sex.

"This office is not going to prosecute two consensual children engaging at the age of 15 in sex," he said. "I don't have the resources. I'm not interested in it. But I am when a 13-year-old presents pregnant and there's a 37-year-old man -- and every time that man is going to claim it's consensual."

In his 1992 opinion, Stephan said a pregnancy was compelling evidence that a crime had occurred and should be examined. But he also said not all pregnancies were injuries. He said he left doctors some discretion on whether to report a pregnancy.

"What General Kline has done is taken away the discretion issue and has stated that it's assumed that there is a crime in each instance that should be reported," Stephan said.

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