Crime & Courts

Lawyer questions basis of abortion-referrals case

TOPEKA — A defense attorney Thursday questioned the scrutiny a Kansas doctor is receiving from the state over referring young patients for late-term abortions to preserve their mental health, noting that a disciplinary case against her stems from an anti-abortion leader's complaint.

A hearing is scheduled to conclude today in the case of Ann Kristin Neuhaus, a doctor who provided second opinions that the late George Tiller's clinic in Wichita needed under Kansas law to perform late-term abortions.

The hearing's presiding officer is expected to decide by early next year to recommend whether the State Board of Healing Arts, which licenses and regulates physicians, should impose sanctions.

A complaint before the board accuses Neuhaus of negligence in conducting mental health exams for 11 patients, ages 10 to 18, who terminated pregnancies from July to November 2003. Neuhaus diagnosed the patients with acute anxiety, acute stress or single episodes of major depression, concluding their conditions met requirements in Kansas law for late-term abortions.

The board's top litigation attorney filed the complaint in April 2010, but it stems from a complaint lodged with the board in 2006 by Cheryl Sullenger, senior policy adviser for the Wichita-based anti-abortion group Operation Rescue.

Robert Eye, lead attorney for Neuhaus, said he believes evidence is "solid" in showing that the doctor met standards of care in conducting the exams. Eye said he respects the board's mandate to protect the public from substandard care and its need to investigate complaints of potential misconduct, but he also suggested Sullenger's complaint was driven by her views on abortion.

"The fact that this complaint was brought to the board by an anti-choice group and not by any patient Dr. Neuhaus has ever evaluated is pretty significant," Eye said. "Dr. Neuhaus evaluated hundreds of patients for Dr. Tiller, none of whom complained. For many of these patients, their parents or guardians were in the room."

But Sullenger said abortion patients are reluctant to complain to the board because they don't want other people to know they've terminated their pregnancies and don't want to relive the experience. Also, she said, patients tend to trust their doctors and don't study the law before seeking a medical procedure.

"If a doctor says this is OK, they're going to trust their doctor," she said. "It's not a surprise to me that a woman who's had an abortion is not a complainant in the case. That's why we're here."

The board's general counsel, Kelli Stevens, declined to comment about the case.

The hearing officer heard a week of testimony in September, but the defense needed another day to finish presenting its case.

Neuhaus, from Nortonville, doesn't have an active practice, but her Kansas license allows her to provide charity care, and she's seeking the board's permission to resume a full practice.

She provided second opinions for Tiller from 1999 through 2006, when Kansas law restricted abortions starting at the 22nd week of pregnancy, if the fetus was viable. A patient had to face death or "substantial and irreversible" harm to "a major bodily function," including mental health. Legislators tightened the law this year so that it no longer includes the mental health exception.

Tiller was among a few U.S. physicians performing late-term abortions before he was shot to death in May 2009 by a man professing strong anti-abortion beliefs.

Abortion opponents contend Tiller turned to Neuhaus because of her willingness to approve late-term abortions. Tiller once faced misdemeanor criminal charges that alleged, in relying on Neuhaus for referrals, he wasn't getting the independent second medical opinion required by state law. But he was acquitted just two months before his murder.

Neuhaus disputes allegations that her documentation was substandard, saying she kept details about patients out of her files over concerns that abortion opponents would get access to them and disseminate the information. Last month, she sent a "cease and desist" letter to Operation Rescue, threatening legal action if the group didn't retract "defamatory" statements on its website.