Topeka — Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has called for an investigation into what she said was a patient's death at Dr. George Tiller's abortion clinic, and she has asked whether the incident could have been prevented by legislation she vetoed.
But the question of whether a death actually occurred, despite the statement in the governor's letter, still hasn't been officially answered.
Sebelius' request for a probe was made to the Kansas Board of Healing Arts and disclosed by the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life on Monday at a Topeka news conference.
"I am writing to request that the State Board of Healing Arts commence an immediate and thorough investigation into the circumstances of the death of a patient at the Wichita Women's Health Center on or about January 13, 2005," Sebelius said in the Feb. 2 letter.
Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life, said Sebelius' letter represented "official" word that a woman died around Jan. 13 at the Wichita clinic. Several anti-abortion groups have alleged a death occurred because they said they saw ambulance activity at the clinic on that date.
Larry Buening, executive director of the Board of Healing Arts, said the agency was investigating information it received concerning the clinic. But Buening refused to say whether that information involved a death.
"I can't confirm or deny anything," he said.
Julie Burkhart, a spokesperson for the clinic, refused to say whether a patient had died.
In a prepared statement, she said clinic records had been subpoenaed but the subpoena came from another state.
"This is not uncommon given the tragic circumstances which often surround a woman's decision to seek an abortion," Burkhart said.
Sebelius spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran said the governor's letter wasn't confirmation of a death at Tiller's clinic.
Corcoran said the governor was relying on media reports, but legislators familiar with the allegation said they had heard of only one television report, which attributed the allegation to the anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue.
Wichita police declined to comment.
Culp said Kansans for Life wanted the matter turned over to Atty. Gen. Phill Kline because the Healing Arts Board has been slow to respond to complaints against doctors who perform abortions.
Also, she said Buening was married to Sebelius' director of constituent services, Vicki Buening, and Sebelius, who supports a woman's right to have an abortion, had received campaign contributions from Tiller.
Eric Rucker, Kline's chief of staff who attended the Kansans for Life news conference, said Kline would consider the group's request.
In her letter, Sebelius also asked Larry Buening to have the Healing Arts Board determine whether a bill approved by the Legislature in 2003 "would have in any way mitigated or prevented the patient's death."
Sebelius vetoed that bill.
Culp said she had an answer: "Yes."
That is because the bill would have required safety standards in abortion clinics, she said. Sebelius vetoed the measure because she said health care facilities were already subject to high standards.
Burkhart criticized Kansans for Life "and those who curry its favor seek to invade the personal lives and medical records of women to further their own political agendas."
She said allegations against the clinic, which has been operating for 34 years, had been made in the past and proven false "just as they will be currently."