Topeka — A key legislator wants to push the state into requiring more detailed reports from doctors who perform late-term abortions. The issue has arisen because of a criminal case involving a high-profile abortion provider.
Rep. Arlen Siegfreid is chairman of a committee reviewing late-term abortions that begins hearings Aug. 31 on late-term abortions, with a Department of Health and Environment official is scheduled to testify.
Siegfreid said Friday he wants to know why the health department isn't requiring doctors to list a medical diagnosis in reporting each late-term abortion of a fetus that can survive outside the womb. Siegfreid, an Olathe Republican, wants to ban abortions after the 21st week of pregnancy, except to save the mother's life.
Abortion foes believe Dr. George Tiller, of Wichita, should be prosecuted for aborting viable fetuses for "trivial" reasons and for violating reporting requirements. Attorney General Paul Morrison has said such charges aren't justified but has filed 19 misdemeanor counts against Tiller, alleging he didn't get a second opinion on some procedures from an independent doctor, as state law requires.
No precise rules
The health department doesn't have rules that spell out exactly how doctors should fill out the standard reporting form when it asks for the "reasons" and "basis" for performing each abortion. But spokesman Joe Blubaugh said the agency is collecting the information the law requires it to collect.
"We don't judge the data that's sent to us," he said. "We don't interpret what the data is. It's just our job to collect it."
The 1998 law on late-term abortions applies after the 21st week of pregnancy when a fetus can survive outside the womb. Two doctors must agree that continuing the pregnancy could kill a woman or girl or cause "substantial and irreversible" harm to "a major bodily function," which has been interpreted to include mental health. The two doctors cannot be financially or legally affiliated.
"It's supposed to be a ban on abortions of viable babies with a few narrow exceptions," said Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life, the state's largest anti-abortion group.
But more than 2,600 viable fetuses have been aborted in Kansas since the law took effect - presumably all at Tiller's clinic, because he's among a few U.S. doctors performing such procedures.
Former Attorney General Phill Kline, an anti-abortion Republican, began investigating Tiller's clinic in 2003. Morrison, an abortion rights Democrat, ousted Kline last year but started a new investigation. Tiller's attorneys have said the doctor has always followed Kansas law.
The investigations showed that when he was asked to report the reasons for late-term abortions of viable fetuses, Tiller reported only that the patient faced "a substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function" - repeating the language of the law.
Kline alleged that such a statement didn't comply with the law. Morrison said evidence shows that not only did the health department accept Tiller's statements, it helped him fill out the forms, suggesting he did not intend to break the law.
Morrison has said the law requires only that two doctors report that an abortion was necessary to preserve a patient's life or protect her health - meaning once a report has been submitted, they've complied.
But spokeswoman Ashley Anstaett said of legislators, "The part of the law that requires two doctors is the part they were hoping would be the accountability portion."
Abortion opponents are frustrated with Morrison's assessment, believing his reading of the law is too narrow. Culp calls it a "ridiculous interpretation."
Kline did file 30 misdemeanor charges against Tiller in December in Sedgwick County, but a judge dismissed the case for jurisdictional reasons. Kline's alleged that Tiller violated the law by aborting viable fetuses because his patients suffered from conditions such as anxiety or "single-episode" depression. Kline also alleged that Tiller was required to report those diagnoses to the state.
Siegfreid agreed with Kline that legislators who wrote the law intended to compel doctors to report such information.
"I would be satisfied if all we had are rules and regulations that required proper completion of that form," he said.