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Kansas to consider fetal heartbeat bill

Kansas legislators may soon consider proposals to ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected early in a pregnancy and to require women to wait three days before obtaining abortions.

Chairman Steve Brunk of the Kansas House Federal and State Affairs Committee expects the panel to have informational hearings on fetal heartbeat legislation after lawmakers open their annual 90-day session on Jan. 12, the Wichita Eagle reported.

The Republican-dominated Legislature has strong anti-abortion majorities in both chambers, but fetal heartbeat legislation previously has split even abortion opponents. Kansans for Life, the most influential anti-abortion group at the Statehouse, has not endorsed the idea, fearing it could result in lawsuits and court rulings that set back attempts to restrict abortion.

Since Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, a strong abortion opponent, took office in January 2011, the state has enacted a wave of new restrictions and regulations for abortion providers. But GOP legislative leaders have blocked debate on fetal heartbeat proposals, and lawmakers haven’t considered a proposal to increase the state’s waiting period for an abortion from 24 hours to 72 hours.

“As a general topic, heartbeat legislation is on the table,” said Brunk, a Wichita Republican.

Brunk also said a 72-hour waiting period could be considered after the GOP-controlled Missouri Legislature enacted such a law in September over Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto.

Kansans for Life has not yet set its agenda for the session, said Kathy Ostrowski, its legislative director. In the past, the group has pushed for incremental change.

Abortion rights groups are bracing for debates over more sweeping proposals after lawmakers last year considered technical changes in laws approved in previous years.

Abortion rights groups believe a fetal heartbeat law could ban abortions as early as the third week after conception — before many women know they’re pregnant. A bill introduced in 2013 would have prohibited non-emergency abortions before a doctor searches for a fetal heartbeat and informs a patient that one exists.

Laura McQuade, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri said the ultimate goal of anti-abortion legislators to eliminate abortion services in Kansas. The state has three clinics that perform abortions, including one operated by Planned Parenthood in Overland Park.

“It’s a tough political environment for women’s health and women’s rights in Kansas,” she said.

Expenses mount as Kansas defends anti-abortion laws

Kansas has paid more than $913,000 to two private law firms that are helping the state defend anti-abortion laws enacted since conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback took office, and such expenses appear likely to grow.

The attorney general’s office disclosed the figures in response to requests from The Associated Press. More than $126,000 in legal fees stem from two lawsuits filed this summer against restrictions enacted just this year.

Kansas has enacted sweeping limits on abortion and providers since Brownback took office in January 2011, though it hasn’t attempted to ban abortions in the earliest weeks of pregnancies, as Arkansas and North Dakota have. The newest Kansas restrictions, challenged in separate state and federal lawsuits this summer, block tax breaks for abortion providers and even govern what appears on their websites.

A state-court lawsuit is still pending against health and safety regulations approved in 2011 specifically for abortion clinics, but the state prevailed in a federal lawsuit against 2011 restrictions on private health insurance coverage for elective abortions. All of those cases have been handled by the firm of Thompson Ramsdell & Qualseth, of Lawrence.

A federal lawsuit against a 2011 law preventing the state from distributing federal family planning dollars to Planned Parenthood to provide non-abortion services is before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. That case has been handled by Foulston Siefkin, the state’s largest law firm, with offices in Wichita, Topeka and Overland Park.

Peter Brownlie, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, said Monday that the spending shows the Republican-dominated Legislature is more interested in “political posturing” on abortion than good financial stewardship. His organization provides abortions at a clinic in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park and is involved in two federal lawsuits.

“It’s a travesty that Kansans are spending $913,000 on things that don’t benefit the state in anyway,” Brownlie said.

But abortion opponents contend abortion providers are to blame for the expenses because they’ve turned to the courts after losing support for their positions among voters.

“It’s a free country, and there’s a right to sue on anything,” Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life, the most influential anti-abortion group at the Statehouse. “But, then, to try to blame us for the money involved in defending the lawsuits is ridiculous.”

The state has paid the Foulston firm more than $386,000 for its work on the lawsuit over the family planning funds for Planned Parenthood.

The Thompson firm has been paid more than $527,000, including more than $252,000 for defending the 2011 clinic regulations. The state paid the firm almost $149,000 for work on the successful defense of the health insurance law.

Brownback, a strong abortion opponent, called on state lawmakers to create a “culture of life” upon taking office. The Legislature already had strong anti-abortion majorities, but it efforts to restrict abortion were stymied by previous governors who’d supported abortion rights.

Some restrictions aren’t being enforced because of the lawsuits. But Culp and other abortion opponents have said the laws were written to survive court scrutiny – unlike in other states such as North Dakota, where lawmakers passed a law banning abortions as early as the sixth week of pregnancy.

A federal judge blocked the North Dakota law, and legislators there set aside $400,000 to defend anti-abortion measures.