State: Arguments open on juvenile sex law

Federal court hears testimony concerning law's constitutionality

? Requiring health care providers to report underage sex between consenting adolescents would have a chilling effect on youths seeking contraception or treatment for sexually transmitted disease – ultimately leading to more teen pregnancies, more abortions and more spread of disease, a public health care researcher said Monday.

The testimony by Dr. Robert Blum, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, came on the first day of a federal civil rights case to determine the constitutionality of a Kansas sex abuse reporting law. The case is being heard by U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten without a jury.

In July 2003, Kansas Atty. Gen. Phill Kline issued an opinion that said the state’s 1982 reporting statute requires doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, social workers and others to report underage sex – even if it is consensual – to law enforcement officials or the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services. He contended the reporting was required because such sex inherently involves abuse of a child.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, a New York advocacy group, sued in 2003, contending that forced reporting of consensual underage sex discourages adolescents from seeking counseling or medical treatment and intrudes on their privacy. In Kansas, the age of consent is 16.

The judge said that as he reads Kline’s opinion, even same-age youths touching genitalia is illegal and subject to mandatory reporting under the state’s zero-tolerance rule.

Blum testified that the only other state he knew about that had interpreted its reporting law similarly to Kansas was California – and that state’s Legislature changed the law after only a year because child protective services were flooded with reports.

Physicians are ethically obligated to tell patients the limits of confidentiality and that any disclosure of sexual activities would result in reporting to authorities, Blum said.

Youths will be less likely to seek treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, and therefore more likely to spread them to others, he said. Untreated, the diseases would also pose significant health consequences to the youths themselves.

Bonnie Scott Jones, attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, told the court in her opening arguments that the plaintiffs were challenging the constitutionality of the Kansas juvenile sex reporting law based on the equal protection clause of the Constitution, arguing it denies confidential health care to adolescents.

They also contend the statute is vague and that Kansas has no interest in the information – which she likened to a “dragnet approach” to amassing information on adolescent sexual activity.

“Consensual sexual action is not inherently harmful,” Jones said.

In his opening arguments, Assistant Atty. Gen. Steve Alexander called the reporting statute “an important tool in a comprehensive plan to protect children from sexual abuse.”

He argued that the group’s entire case is a policy issue better argued in the Legislature than the courts.

“Minors cannot consent to illegal sexual activity,” Alexander told the judge.

Kansas’ reporting statute does not restrict adolescent rights to medical services, he said.

Assistant Atty. Gen. Scott Hesse, who is representing Kansas county attorneys in the case, said in his opening arguments that county attorneys have discretion on whether to prosecute sex cases involving same-age youths.

“The laws are tough to protect the most vulnerable in society,” Hesse said.

Citing 2002 statistics from the National Survey of Family Growth, health care consultant Stanley Henshaw testified that by age 16, between 27 percent and 28 percent of females, and slightly fewer males, have had sexual intercourse.

Including such other sexual activities as oral sex and genital stimulation, the number of teenagers engaging in sexual activity before age 16 rises to between 40 percent and 50 percent, said Henshaw, a senior fellow at The Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit corporation for reproductive health research.