Topeka Kansas health officials moved ahead Tuesday with work designed to preserve new regulations for abortion providers despite a legal challenge in federal court that so far has blocked their enforcement.
The state Department of Health and Environment was still taking written comments on its rules, which tell abortion providers what drugs and equipment they must stock and set minimum size and temperature requirements for procedure and patient recovery rooms. Spokeswoman Miranda Myrick said the agency will consider changes proposed by Wednesday.
The health department also planned to have a hearing on the rules Wednesday in Topeka. Its officials initially bypassed a public hearing and consideration of possible changes to get the rules in place quickly. But unless the department goes through that process, the regulations will expire on Oct. 29.
Two of the state's three abortion providers, as well as their doctors, filed a federal lawsuit against the regulations in June, and a federal judge blocked their enforcement July 1. The department already had announced plans to have a hearing and consider changes, and major revisions could affect the lawsuit.
"All comments, whether written or oral, will be considered by the department," Myrick said.
The department is trying to impose its rules under a new law — also on hold because of the federal lawsuit — requiring hospitals, surgical centers, clinics and doctor's offices to obtain a special, annual license if they perform five or more elective abortions a month.
The federal lawsuit was filed by Drs. Herbert Hodes and Traci Nauser, his daughter, who provide abortions and other services at the Center for Women's Health in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park. Also involved is the Aid for Women clinic in Kansas City and its physician, Ronald Yeomans.
The health department told both Aid for Women and the Center for Women's Health that they wouldn't receive abortion licenses; each acknowledged that it would have to undergo extensive renovations to meet the new requirements. The third provider, Planned Parenthood, received a license for its clinic in Overland Park.
Among other things, the new regulations said abortion providers' procedure rooms must have at least 150 square feet of space, excluding fixed cabinets, each with its own janitor's closet of 50 square feet. Recovery rooms must have at least 80 square feet of space for each patient.
Dionne Scott, spokeswoman for the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing Hodes and Nauser, said the two doctors will suggest changes to the regulations during Wednesday's hearing. She said if the state makes extensive enough changes, the doctors would consider dropping their lawsuit.
The providers argue the rules aren't necessary to protect patients' health and are designed to prevent clinics and doctor's offices from performing abortions. Abortion rights advocates doubt the department will entertain significant changes.
"This entire process has been politicized from the beginning," said Kari Ann Rinker, state coordinator for the National Organization for Women. "It has nothing to do with the health and safety of women."
The regulations have strong support among abortion opponents, and Gov. Sam Brownback, an anti-abortion Republican who signed the licensing law, has called them reasonable.
Before passing the licensing law, legislators didn't cite or compile data showing that abortion has a higher rate of death or complications than other procedures done in doctor's offices and clinics. But abortion opponents have for years publicized occasional ambulance runs to clinics and tracked malpractice and regulatory cases involving providers. They expected to present some of that information to health department officials Wednesday.
Officials at the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life argue that special rules are necessary for abortion providers because patients who encounter problems are not likely to sue abortion providers or go to regulators out of shame over having terminated unwanted pregnancies.
Kathy Ostrowski, the group's legislative director, said abortion providers were going to file a lawsuit no matter how the regulations were written.
"If you don't give them specificity, they sue for vagueness. If you're specific, they say you're being punitive," she said. "They just don't want to be regulated."