Archive for Monday, March 21, 2005

Analysis: Recent events bolster abortion opponents

Bill to regulate clinics gains steam after incidents in Kansas, Texas

March 21, 2005


— Abortion opponents are pushing again for legislative approval of tougher regulation of the state's six abortion clinics, an effort that foundered two years ago when Gov. Kathleen Sebelius vetoed their bill.

This year's push might have lacked momentum -- or failed to happen at all -- without recent events.

First came the report of a death of a young Texas woman who'd received services in January at Dr. George Tiller's clinic in Wichita, long the site of protests because he performs late-term procedures.

Then came sanctions against a doctor over conditions at his Kansas City, Kan., clinic.

Finally, there's Atty. Gen. Phill Kline's ongoing pursuit of records from Tiller's clinic and one operated in Overland Park by Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri. While Kline and his allies have stressed his investigation into child rapes, he also wants to examine potentially illegal late-term abortions.

"There are a number of things that have come together to force it this year," said Rep. Nancy Kirk, D-Topeka, an abortion rights supporter.

This year's bill is similar to the one vetoed in 2003 by Sebelius, an abortion rights supporter. It's also similar to one the House approved in 2004, only to see the measure languish in a Senate committee.

It would require the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to set minimum health and safety standards. Some minimum requirements on the training of clinic personnel or the availability of emergency equipment would be set by state law, however.

Anti-abortion legislators and activists said they hadn't planned to push this year for such legislation, knowing Sebelius' position.

Abortion opponents learned of the Texas woman's death and the sanctions against the doctor and went public. And Kline's investigation became public after the clinics went to the Kansas Supreme Court to block two subpoenas issued last year by a judge at Kline's behest.

"I think the events gave us an injection, to get the energy flowing again," said Rep. Mary Pilcher Cook, R-Shawnee, a supporter of the bill.

Abortion rights supporters suspect that the real goal is to make clinic regulation so burdensome that at least a few will close, restricting the availability of abortion.

"Those who are anti-choice have learned that they are not going to simply overturn Roe v. Wade, which is their goal," said Julie Burkhart, director of ProKanDo, an abortion rights political action committee, referring to the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion across the nation. "They're trying to chip away."

The Board of Healing Arts regulates doctors. KDHE regulates hospitals and outpatient surgery clinics, but not offices or clinics where minor surgeries are performed under local anesthesia.

So far, abortion clinics are grouped with the latter, though Planned Parenthood's facility in Overland Park is licensed as an outpatient surgery center.

Abortion rights activists repeatedly maintain that the procedures are safe medically and there's no reason for abortion clinics to be singled out in regulatory legislation any more than doctors' offices or clinics performing minor surgeries.

But abortion opponents still hope for widespread public acceptance for the idea that abortions are risky, performed in often unsafe conditions in lightly regulated clinics.

That's why at news conferences they've shown blown up photographs taken inside Dr. Krishna Rajanna's clinic in Kansas City, Kan., in 2003, reportedly by an informant.

In a consent order Rajanna signed, the Board of Healing Arts said his clinic was not clean enough, and it required him to, among other things, become certified to revive patients whose hearts stop. Rajanna accepted a $1,000 fine.

Anti-abortion advocates viewed punishment as far too mild. Indignant anti-abortion legislators wrote the board a letter, questioning its handling of the case.

In a memo to legislators last week, Larry Buening, the board's executive director, said Rajanna voluntarily "took numerous remedial steps."

"No one who reviewed the investigative file found that patients are at risk or that there is any imminent and certain harm to the public by the doctor's continued practice," Buening wrote. "During the investigation, no patient complaint was received and no evidence of patient harm was discovered."

Nor has evidence come to light to fully explain what happened to the Texas woman who received services at Tiller's clinic.

But abortion opponents see a lack of information as another reason for their bill. With stricter regulation, they argue, Kansans would know more about what goes on inside abortion clinics -- and whether it meets people's idea of adequate medical care.

"Women's health needs to be protected, and no matter how long and how hard we have to work to get it accomplished, we can't give up," Pilcher Cook said.

Abortion rights supporters are used to such determination from their antagonists. It may flag from time to time, but it doesn't disappear, as this year's clinic regulation bill shows.

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