Topeka A bill giving more legal protection to Kansas health care providers who refuse to participate in abortions was on its way Wednesday to Gov. Sam Brownback, despite concerns it would limit access to birth control and allow some professionals to block life-saving care.
The Senate approved the “conscience” measure, 23-16. The House passed the bill last month, and Brownback, a Republican who strongly opposes abortion, is expected to sign it. The new law would take effect July 1.
Abortion opponents argued that the legislation merely updates decades-old state laws preventing doctors and hospitals from being forced to participate in abortions or sterilizations. They said changes are needed because women seeking abortions can now use drugs to induce them, and health care professionals who oppose abortion shouldn’t face the threat of losing their jobs or being sued if they follow their consciences.
“This is about respecting the rights to conscience and others’ beliefs,” said Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Shawnee Republican who opposes abortion. “Let’s protect people’s beliefs.”
The measure extends “conscience” protections to clinics, doctor’s offices and other facilities other than hospitals. People are protected not only from being forced to participate in abortions but from referring patients for abortion services or participating in the prescription or administration of any drug that terminates a pregnancy.
The legal protections extend to any individual or institution that “reasonably believes” that the use of a drug terminates a pregnancy. Some critics said that provision will allow doctors and pharmacists to refuse to prescribe or dispense birth control.
They also said it could allow a doctor to refuse to provide chemotherapy to a pregnant cancer patient because it might end her pregnancy.
Furthermore, critics said, patients wouldn’t know about a provider’s moral objections until the provider refused to provide treatment or dispense a drug — and the provider wouldn’t have to refer the patient elsewhere.
“This is outrageous,” Sen. Kelly Kultala, a Kansas City Democrat, said after the vote.
Federal and state lawsuits are challenging Kansas laws enacted last year to impose health and safety rules specifically for abortion providers, restrict private health insurance coverage of elective abortions and prevent the state from paying Planned Parenthood to provide non-abortion services.
Those measures helped vault Kansas to the forefront of a national trend in which abortion foes capitalized on the election of new, sympathetic Republican governors like Brownback. Kansas lawmakers also tightened limits on late-term abortions and required parental consent in writing before a minor’s abortion.
Julie Burkhart, founder of the abortion-rights political action committee Trust Women, said the latest measure further erodes health care for women.
“Anti-family planning legislators insist on dictating to Kansas women how they will control their fertility,” she said in a statement after the vote.
The anti-abortion group Kansans for Life has said the latest measure is broad enough to cover birth control if a provider has moral objections or a reasonable belief that it would terminate pregnancies.
But Kathy Ostrowski, the group’s legislative director, said suggestions that the bill will prevent life-saving care or significantly limit access to birth control are unfounded. She said relatively few doctors or pharmacists are likely to opt out of birth control — and then only based on information about how medications work.
“We are at a brave new world that we weren’t (at) 40 years ago, of chemicals that have negative effects, and the ultimate being the termination of life,” Ostrowski said.