TOPEKA — Rep. Steve Huebert of Valley Center has introduced a bill to prevent the use of mental health as a reason for a late-term abortion in Kansas.
Currently, abortions after 22 weeks of pregnancy are illegal unless a physician certifies that the pregnancy poses a threat to life or bodily function. The courts have interpreted bodily function to include mental health. Abortion opponents have long accused abortion providers of using bogus mental health diagnoses to perform otherwise illegal abortions.
Huebert's bill would limit bodily function to physical function and specifically exclude "mental or emotional functions."
"The mental health exemption was used extensively by Dr. (George) Tiller in the past, and we need to define it so we don't allow that to happen again," said Huebert, a Republican.
He said he isn't worried about the proposal possibly being challenged in the courts.
No doctor in Kansas is known to be performing late-term abortions since Tiller was killed in 2009 in Wichita.
Huebert, whose bill passed the House last year but didn't get a hearing in the Senate, said there has been discussion of other doctors setting up abortion practices in Kansas.
"This is as important now as ever,'' he said.
But the Legislature has better things to do than debate abortion, said Peter Brownlie, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri. He said lawmakers should leave questions of mental health and abortion to a woman and her physician.
"It's truly sad, as the state faces a half-billion dollar budget shortfall, one of the first bills introduced this year concerns abortion," Brownlie said in a written statement. "This is going to be a difficult year in terms of women's reproductive rights."
Indeed, Huebert's proposal is only the first of several abortion bills expected this year — the first with a conservative Republican governor after eight years of Democratic governors routinely vetoing abortion bills.
One proposal this year would require greater information from doctors signing off on late-term abortions. Another would cite fetal pain as a reason to outlaw all abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. And some are even talking about legislation designed to trigger a lawsuit in the hopes of overturning the historic Roe v. Wade decision, which affirmed abortion as a constitutional right.
"I'm focused on what we can do in Kansas to save the maximum number of babies," said Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the author of several vetoed abortion bills.
The state's leading anti-abortion group, Kansans for Life, is urging lawmakers to be cautious.
Executive director Mary Kay Culp said lawmakers should start by passing the bills vetoed by former Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson. Legislation that goes further by banning most abortions, for example, might backfire, she warned.
"If you overreach too quickly you invite mischaracterization and backlash," Culp said. "It's smarter in the long run to take a more measured approach. You have to remember the politics."
Debates over abortion helped drive a wedge between the Kansas GOP's moderates and conservatives, creating a rift that lingers.
New Gov. Sam Brownback, while acknowledging his anti-abortion record, avoids talking too much about the controversial issue. The economy and the state budget, he has said, are his top priorities.