Politics & Government

Wichita clinic won’t resume telemedicine abortions, after judge refuses to block law

A Wichita clinic won’t resume offering telemedicine abortions after a judge refused to block a state law the clinic says prohibits the procedure.

Trust Women had offered telemedicine abortions last fall, but stopped in January amid questions over its legality.

In a telemedicine abortion, a doctor and a woman speak via videoconference before she takes medication to end a pregnancy. The procedure involves two pills. One is taken at a clinic and the other at home.

Shawnee County District Court Judge Teresa Watson on Monday said a 2018 state law doesn’t stop abortion providers from offering telemedicine abortions.

“The Telemedicine Act does not authorize or prohibit any specific medical procedure,” Watson said in a written decision.

Abortion rights supporters say lawmakers intended to prohibit telemedicine abortions when they approved the law. Trust Women sued earlier this year in an effort to block it.

“When that bill was up before the Legislature, it clearly indicated to us — those of us who are providers of abortion care, who might provide telemedicine — that it would prohibit us,” said Trust Women CEO Julie Burkhart.

Watson’s decision marked a setback for abortion rights supporters, who had hailed an April decision by the Kansas Supreme Court that found women have a fundamental right to an abortion.

Mary Kay Culp, director of Kansans for Life, welcomed Watson’s ruling.

“We’ll see what it means in the long run. But for now, and especially coming from a woman, it’s a great decision,” Culp said.

In December, another Kansas judge ruled that telemedicine abortions could continue. Monday’s decision appears to conflict with the earlier ruling.

The clinic had said the state attorney general, the Sedgwick County district attorney and the state Board of Healing Arts had refused to provide assurances they wouldn’t enforce the law after the December ruling, prompting it to file the lawsuit.

Burkhart said Trust Women will continue to hold off on providing telemedicine abortions in light of the decision. She emphasized the need for clarity on the law going forward.

“I do not want to jeopardize our doctors or the facility,” Burkhart said.

Burkhart had testified during a May hearing that she was fearful that the clinic and the physicians there could be penalized for providing telemedicine abortions under the law.

But Watson appeared skeptical of her arguments.

“There was no testimony that a physician performing telemedicine abortions made a decision to stop doing so because of the challenged laws, or for any other reason,” Watson wrote.

The clinic’s lawsuit is progressing as the Board of Healing Arts investigates a complaint made by Kansans for Life. Culp has said the clinic’s decision to offer telemedicine-assisted abortions last fall violated a previous ban on “webcam abortions” that was put in place years before the 2018 ban.

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.