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Sunday, April 20, 2014

ACLU sues over ban on abortion insurance

BY DION LEFLER
The Wichita Eagle

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit seeking to block a new Kansas law that prohibits insurance companies from including abortion coverage in comprehensive health plans.

"This law is part of a nationwide trend to take away insurance coverage for a legal medical procedure that is an important part of basic health care for women," Brigitte Amiri, an attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, said Tuesday in a statement. "Many things can happen in a pregnancy that are beyond a woman's control, so having insurance coverage for abortion ensures that every woman can get the health care she may need."

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan.

The law prohibits coverage of abortions except in life-threatening emergencies. Women who want abortion coverage would need to purchase a separate rider to their policy, which the ACLU says is not always offered as an option.

Insurance companies would be prohibited from offering abortion coverage, even by a rider, through the statewide insurance exchange scheduled to open in 2014 as part of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the lawsuit said.

Proponents of the Kansas law said it accommodates the wishes of abortion opponents who don't want to help pay for abortions, even indirectly, by being part of an insurance pool that covers the procedure.

"The state has long asserted the power to heavily regulate the insurance industry, with a variety of rational mandates," said Kathy Ostrowski, a lobbyist for the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life. "It certainly can regulate insurance to promote what the courts have often upheld as the state interest in promoting childbirth.

"Insurance schema are not a free choice any more and it is important to uphold the rights of conscience for individuals," Ostrowski said. "No abortions are prevented by (the new law), but neither does the state force the subsidizing of abortion."

The ACLU lawsuit said women seek abortions for a variety of reasons including rape, domestic abuse, overall health, unreadiness for parenthood, lack of income, or a partner who doesn't want a child.

The suit claims the law violates the constitutional rights of women and "serves no legitimate state interest."

"The Act's only purpose is to make it more difficult for women to obtain and pay for abortion care," the lawsuit said. "By prohibiting women from purchasing insurance that covers all of their health care needs while placing no similar restriction on men, it impermissibly discriminates based on sex."

The ACLU's suit names Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger as the defendant because it is her department's responsibility to enforce the law.

The suit seeks an order declaring the law unconstitutional and an injunction on enforcement by Praeger, future commissioners or their employees,

Insurance Department spokesman Bob Hanson said department lawyers are analyzing the lawsuit and had no immediate comment.

The lawsuit, along with others filed previously challenging other new abortion regulations, drew a sharp rebuke Tuesday from Gov. Sam Brownback's spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag.

"There seems to be a pattern here of suing voters when they express their preferences through elections," she said.

"Those who fail at the ballot box are turning to the courts to advance their agenda. We will uphold the law as written by the people who express their sovereignty through their elected representatives."

The new law was passed after midnight on the last day of the legislative wrap-up session in May.

It received no public hearings other than floor debate because it was added at the last minute by a House-Senate conference committee working another bill.

"We feel very comfortable as that case works its way through the process, (the law) will be found to be within the purview of the state's authority," said Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, one of the Legislature's leading abortion foes.

Since that debate, abortion-rights supporters have especially targeted Rep. Pete DeGraaf, R-Mulvane, who carried the bill on the House floor. During the debate, DeGraaf likened buying an abortion insurance rider to protect against catastrophic or unwanted pregnancy to carrying a spare tire in his car.

DeGraaf did not return a phone message seeking comment.

The bill was one of five anti-abortion laws passed this year, after the 2010 election increased social-conservative Republican voting power in the Legislature and put Brownback, an abortion opponent, in office.

The other measures that passed were:

* A ban on virtually all abortions after 21 weeks of pregnancy, based on a disputed medical theory that fetuses of that age can feel pain.

* Requirements that minor girls seeking an abortion obtain permission from both parents, or a court ruling.

* A bill stripping funding for women's health clinics run by Planned Parenthood, which offers abortion services at other facilities.

* Tougher licensing, inspection and reporting requirements for clinics and hospitals that allow abortions, combined with restrictions on the use of abortion-inducing drugs.

The laws defunding Planned Parenthood and restricting clinics have also been challenged in court. Judges have issued temporary injunctions blocking enforcement of those laws.

Contributing: Kansas City Star Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527.

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