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Archive for Saturday, September 1, 2007

Officials grilled over abortion restriction enforcement

September 1, 2007

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— Because the state doesn't automatically review the medical reasons doctors use to justify late-term abortions, some legislators suggested Friday, the result is lax enforcement of restrictions on those procedures.

Anti-abortion legislators questioned officials from the Board of Healing Arts and the Department of Health and Environment during a committee hearing. The board regulates doctors, and the department collects abortion statistics.

The legislators believe the state should review the diagnosis leading to an abortion of a fetus that can survive outside the womb. The issue has arisen because of a criminal case against a high-profile abortion provider, Dr. George Tiller.

Board of Healing Arts officials said they respond to complaints about care and evaluate doctors' care in individual cases but don't automatically investigate late-term abortions. Health department officials said their only roles are to collect and distribute information about abortion.

'We need to find a way'

Abortion opponents are frustrated because a 1998 law was supposed to limit late-term abortions of viable fetuses to medical emergencies, but more than 2,600 have been performed since it took effect. Tiller, from Wichita, is among only a few U.S. doctors performing late-term abortions.

"We have another law that doesn't have enough teeth to chew gum," Rep. Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, said after the hearing. "We need to find a way to make it work."

The nine-member Special Committee on Federal and State Affairs is reviewing the late-term abortion law and its enforcement and could recommend changes to the 2008 Legislature. The committee plans two additional days of hearings next week.

But other committee members said they don't see any problem with the two agencies' operations. If the state doesn't investigate a late-term abortion until it receives a complaint, neither do police investigate most crimes until they receive a report, said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley.

"There's nothing really conclusive that's coming out of it," Hensley, D-Topeka, said about the hearing.

19 misdemeanors filed

Julie Burkhart, a lobbyist for ProKanDo, a political action committee Tiller founded, said anti-abortion legislators and groups want to single out abortion providers - with the goal of reducing access to their services.

Siegfreid already has said he'd like to ban all abortions after the 21st week of pregnancy, except to save the life of the mother.

"What it amounts to is punishing women," Burkhart said. "Are we going to punish them for the decisions that they make or the situations that they're in?"

Attorney General Paul Morrison has filed 19 misdemeanor charges against Tiller in Sedgwick County District Court, alleging Tiller violated the late-term abortion law by not getting a second opinion from an independent physician, as required. Many abortion opponents believe Tiller should be investigated over allegations he performing late-term abortions for medically "trivial" reasons.

Doctors can't be affiliated

The late-term law applies after the 21st week of pregnancy, when the fetus can survive outside the womb. It says two doctors must conclude that if the pregnancy continues, a mother-to-be could die or face "substantial and irreversible" harm to "a major bodily function," a phrase interpreted to include mental health.

The two doctors can't be financially or legally affiliated. Also, the doctor must report each such abortion to the health department, along with the reasons and basis for concluding a medical emergency existed.

The health department has faced criticism because it has allowed Tiller and other doctors to repeat the law's language about "substantial and irreversible" harm without specifying the diagnosis. The agency also has no rules spelling out what must be listed.

Greg Crawford, who directs its analysis of vital statistics, said the agency doesn't judge the information it receives. Susan Kang, its policy director, said the agency doesn't have the power to write rules for what must be reported because it doesn't regulate abortion.

As for the Board of Healing Arts, its officials argue it doesn't have the resources to automatically review each late-term abortion. It received nearly 2,600 complaints from July 1, 2005, to June 30, 2006, said executive director Larry Buening.

"We don't go and look at every appendectomy to see that every appendectomy in fact complied with the standard of care," he said.

Abortion opponents weren't satisfied with such answers.

"Today's hearings made it painfully obvious just how far our Department of Health and Environment and Board of Healing Arts have gone to avoid the intent and enforcement of Kansas' late-term abortion law," said Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life, the state's largest anti-abortion group.

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