Topeka Gov. Kathleen Sebelius vetoed a bill Thursday that would have rewritten Kansas’ restrictions on late-term abortions, perhaps complicating her effort to win confirmation as U.S. health and human services secretary.
Sebelius questioned whether the bill was constitutional and suggested it would cause “intimidation” of doctors.
Anti-abortion groups backed the bill and were watching Sebelius’ action closely as she awaits U.S. Senate confirmation to head the Department of Health and Human Services. Abortion opponents have been the most vocal critics of her appointment by President Barack Obama.
“With her nomination literally hanging out there to be resolved, I’m just shocked that she would be so blatant in the face of Americans and senators who’ve already expressed reservations,” Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said in an interview.
Under the bill, physicians would have been required to report additional information to the state about the late-term abortions they perform, and prosecutors in multiple counties could pursue criminal charges over potentially illegal late-term procedures.
Also, doctors could have faced lawsuits if their patients later believed a late-term abortion violated the law. A woman’s husband or a girl’s parent or guardian also could file a lawsuit.
“The governor once again showed leadership in representing the great majority of Kansans who support reasonable restrictions while assuring access to health care,” Peter Brownlie, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, said in a statement.
In a veto message to legislators, Sebelius argued that doctors could face criminal prosecutions even if they tried to comply with the law. Physicians, she said, should not face future prosecutions if they are trying to save a woman’s life or health.
“The provisions in this bill that would allow for the criminal prosecution of a physician intending to comply with the law will lead to the intimidation of health care providers and reduce access to comprehensive health care for women, even when it is necessary to preserve their lives and health,” Sebelius wrote in the veto message.
Anti-abortion legislators in Kansas are likely to try to override the veto. The Legislature returns Wednesday from its annual spring break.
Her veto came as anti-abortion and other conservative groups have stepped up pressure in Washington on senators to reject her nomination.
Before the veto, Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, issued a statement saying “significant questions” remained about Sebelius’ stance on late-term abortions.
“The Senate should not vote, nor should Gov. Sebelius be confirmed, until these questions are answered fully and completely,” Steele said.
Both the White House and Sebelius spokeswoman Beth Martino declined to respond to Steele’s comments.
Meanwhile, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, an anti-abortion Republican, continued to face strong pressure to back away from a previous endorsement of Sebelius. Spokesman Brian Hart declined to comment on whether the veto would cause Brownback to rethink his position.
But Brownback said in a statement: “I’m disappointed. I’m not surprised. I would have signed that bill.”
In her veto message, Sebelius said she has worked as governor to reduce unwanted pregnancies and that abortions in Kansas have declined more than 10 percent since she took office in 2003 — a point that nettles abortion opponents, who say she deserves no credit for the drop.
“I am confident that with a more united effort to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies, combined with creating conditions that provide support and assistance for mothers and their babies, we will have even greater success reducing abortions in our state,” Sebelius said.
She said the bill would not have reduced abortions and probably would be struck down by the federal courts. She cited a 1997 decision by a federal appeals court in an Ohio case and said the Kansas bill had language similar to what that decision rejected.
The anti-abortion group Kansans for Life disputed her legal analysis, saying a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Nebraska case allows the language in the bill.
Sebelius vetoed a bill with similar provisions last year, but there are key differences with this year’s measure. The 2008 bill would have allowed lawsuits to block late-term abortions beforehand.
Kansas law says late-term abortions can be performed on viable fetuses after the 21st week of pregnancy only if a woman or girl faces death or “substantial and irreversible” harm to a major bodily function, including her mental health. Doctors must file a report on each late-term abortion and must obtain a second opinion from an independent physician before performing the procedure.
Previously, the pursuit of criminal charges over illegal abortions has been limited to the attorney general or prosecutors in counties where abortions are performed. This year’s measure allowed charges from a prosecutor in any county in which an act related to the abortion occurred.
Supporters argued that the bill didn’t change state policies on late-term abortions so much as it strengthened their enforcement. Critics said the real goal was to restrict access to abortions.