Published 3/8/2013 in News
TOPEKA (AP) — Sweeping legislation cleared a Kansas House committee Thursday that would bar public schools from having any relationship with abortion providers or their informational materials and would block even indirect subsidies for abortions.
The bill approved by the Federal and State Affairs Committee doesn't contain changes as dramatic as a new Arkansas law that nearly bans abortions from the 12th week of pregnancy, but abortion rights supporters in Kansas still see it as a serious threat to access to such procedures. Abortion opponents argue the measure lessens the state's entanglement with a practice many residents find objectionable.
The Kansas legislation rewrites tax laws to prevent groups providing abortions from receiving tax exemptions or credits that go to other nonprofit groups or health care providers. Also, a woman who claims an income tax deduction for medical expenses couldn't include the cost of abortion services.
The bill spells out in more detail what information doctors must provide to women before terminating their pregnancies, and it strengthens a law against residents at the state's medical school performing abortions on state time. It declares that life begins "at fertilization," and "unborn children have interests in life, health and well-being that should be protected."
The legislation would prohibit any abortion provider from furnishing materials for sex education classes in public schools. School district employees and companies or groups under contract to provide educational services couldn't be involved in performing abortions.
"It is meant to be comprehensive," said Rep. Steve Brunk, a Wichita Republican who opposes abortion and serves as the committee's vice chairman.
The provision dealing with public schools is similar to legislation considered this week by a Texas Senate committee.
Julie Burkhart, founder of the Wichita-based abortion-rights group Trust Women, said the Kansas measure would "stigmatize" anyone associated with providers and violates their free speech rights.
The proposal had drawn criticism because it initially was drafted broadly enough to prevent abortion providers or their employees from volunteering at their children's schools. Even some strong abortion opponents blanched and successfully worked to narrow the language.
"If you worked in an abortion clinic, you could not bring cupcakes to the kids' parties," committee Chairman Arlen Siegfreid, an Olathe Republican and abortion opponent, said of the earlier version.
But Rep. Allan Rothlisberg, a Grandview Plaza Republican, argued in favor of the broader language.
"If we're going to have people in our education system, I don't want them involved in any way, shape or form or manner in killing children, killing babies," Rothlisberg said. "We should have people of integrity and morality teaching our children."
Abortion rights opponents in Kansas have pushed successfully for a series of new restrictions on the procedure and its providers since Gov. Sam Brownback, an anti-abortion Republican, took office in January 2011. Both legislative chambers have solid anti-abortion majorities, and the bill approved by the House committee is likely to become law.
But Kansans for Life, the most influential anti-abortion group at the Statehouse, has not pushed for changes as dramatic as those in Arkansas' law, fearing they could lead to adverse court rulings. Mary Kay Culp, the group's executive director, said the state has succeeded in reducing abortions with an incremental approach.
The Senate has approved a bill making it a crime for doctors to perform abortions solely because a woman or her family doesn't want a baby of a certain gender. Over the past two years, Kansas has tightened limits on late-term abortions, required doctors performing abortions on minors to obtain written consent from their parents or guardians, and restricted private health insurance coverage for abortions.
Kansas also imposed new health and safety regulations specifically for abortion providers that are being challenged in court.
Brunk acknowledged that he and other legislators would like to go further by perhaps enacting a near-ban as restrictive as Arkansas'. But he said abortion opponents aren't yet united on taking such an approach.
Meanwhile, abortion rights supporters are vigorously attacking the bill approved by the House committee.
"There definitely parts of this bill that are as serious a threat to access as the 12-week ban in Arkansas," said Elise Higgins, a lobbyist for the Kansas chapter of the National Organization for Women. "It's just a little more sneaky."
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