Federal judge considering blocking Kansas abortion rules
Kansas City, Kan. ? A federal judge in Kansas expressed skepticism Wednesday that a Planned Parenthood clinic would suffer “irreparable harm” if an injunction isn’t issued to block parts of a sweeping state anti-abortion law from taking effect next week.
Chief Judge Kathryn Vratil considered arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood, which argues that Kansas’ new law infringes on free speech rights. The measure requires doctors to tell women seeking abortions that the procedure will end the life of a “whole, separate, unique, living human being.” Backers of the law say it will protect patients by making sure they receive adequate information about abortion and fetal development.
The law takes effect Monday, and Vratil said from the bench that she’ll decide soon whether to block parts of the law until she can hold further court hearings. She’s set another hearing for July 29.
A key issue is whether Planned Parenthood’s clinic in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park and the clinic’s medical director would be irreparably harmed by having to comply with the law for even a short period. Diana Salgado, an attorney for the New York-based Planned Parenthood Federation of America, argued that the standard is met when the clinic and its personnel are forced to publicly endorse anti-abortion views.
“It’s harm that can’t be undone because you can’t take back the speech,” Salgado said.
But from the bench, Vratil questioned whether the requirements disputed by Planned Parenthood would force practical changes in how abortion providers treat their patients and said, “I’m struggling with how you can be irreparably harmed.”
The same law also bans sex-selection abortions, blocks tax breaks for providers, prohibits them from furnishing materials or instructors for public schools’ classes and declares as a general policy that life begins “at fertilization.”
Planned Parenthood didn’t challenge those parts of the law, but they’re being attacked in a lawsuit filed in state court last week by two doctors. A hearing in that case is scheduled Thursday in Shawnee County District Court.
Kansas was back in court after having spent nearly $769,000 on private attorneys in defending other anti-abortion laws enacted by the Republican-dominated Legislature since GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, a strong abortion opponent, took office in January 2011.
Planned Parenthood objects to a requirement that says the home page of its website must link to a state health department site on abortion and fetal development, along with a statement that the state’s information is objective. The organization also opposes a new mandate that patients receive information that a fetus can feel pain by the 20th week of pregnancy.
Salgado argued that the law is “egregious” in forcing abortion providers to espouse disputed arguments from the abortion opponents.
But the state argues that providers are free to put disclaimers on their websites saying they don’t think the state’s information is accurate and provide whatever additional information they deem relevant.
“The Kansas law does not do one thing to restrict what they say, which would be a problem,” said Stephen McAllister, solicitor general for Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office.
Not only has Schmidt’s office incurred big legal bills from previous lawsuits since 2011, it predicted earlier this year that defending the new anti-abortion law would cost an additional $500,000 over the next two years.
Dr. Herbert Hodes and his daughter, Dr. Traci Nauser, who perform abortions at their Overland Park health center, filed the state court lawsuit challenging the entire law enacted this year.
Another lawsuit filed by Hodes and Nauser in 2011 over health and safety regulations specifically for abortion providers remains pending in Shawnee County District Court, preventing the rules from being enforced.
Planned Parenthood also is challenging the state’s denial of family planning dollars to provide non-abortion services, and the issue is before a federal appeals court. The state won a federal lawsuit over a 2011 law restricting private health insurance coverage for elective abortions.