Politics & Government

Abortion legislation centered on heartbeats likely to come up in 2015

The Kansas Statehouse is bathed in late afternoon light. (January 22, 2014)
The Kansas Statehouse is bathed in late afternoon light. (January 22, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

Legislation that would ban abortions when a fetal heartbeat is detected is likely to be taken up again by Kansas lawmakers in 2015.

Although similar measures have stalled in the past, a “heartbeat bill” is considered more likely to pass now after a number of abortion opponents won election to the House.

It would be the first substantive anti-abortion measure attempted in the Legislature in two years. The 2014 session was spent tweaking existing laws to address legal issues raised in state and federal lawsuits filed by abortion providers.

The session that begins Jan. 12 could see other anti-abortion proposals. Some say legislation could be attempted to extend the waiting period for women seeking an abortion from 24 to 72 hours. Such a measure passed in Missouri in September.

The Kansas Coalition for Life is petitioning for heartbeat legislation.

Kansans for Life, the most influential anti-abortion organization in the state, hasn’t set its agenda for the coming session yet, said Kathy Ostrowski, the organization’s legislative director. She wouldn’t comment on what it might propose.

Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, chairman of the Federal and State Affairs Committee, said it’s likely the committee will have at least informational hearings on heartbeat legislation.

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

Whether a bill comes out of those hearings is hard to determine, he said. The GOP holds 91 anti-abortion seats in the House, but heartbeat bills have caused division among abortion opponents in the past. Some think it is an overreach that wouldn’t survive a court challenge. Kansans for Life has typically argued for a more incremental approach toward restricting abortions.

A heartbeat bill in Ohio recently was voted down by a Republican-controlled House.

“With the ideological makeup of the House and Senate, there would be enough votes,” Brunk said, “but we want to proceed appropriately and not just put legislation together that wouldn’t work. It’s got to be the right language.”

A fetal heartbeat typically can be detected about 21 days from conception, before a lot of women – especially younger women who aren’t as attuned to their bodies – know they are pregnant, can confirm it with a test and then get to a doctor, said Julie Burkhart, founder of Trust Women, which raised money to open the South Wind Women’s Center in Wichita in 2013.

“This could definitely have more devastating effects on young women, but it would have devastating effects on all women,” she said. “It would outlaw abortion in the state of Kansas.”

Headed for the courts

Any heartbeat legislation that comes out of the Legislature and is signed by Gov. Sam Brownback – who has signed every anti-abortion measure that has reached his desk since he took office in 2011 – would be headed for the courts, where Kansas has spent more than $1 million defending recent anti-abortion laws.

“I think the early-abortion ban is a political ploy to try to tighten even further access that women have to abortion services in Kansas,” said Laura McQuade, president of Planned Parenthood of Kansas & Mid-Missouri. “We obviously believe it’s entirely unconstitutional.

“Ultimately the goal is to eliminate abortion services for women in the state of Kansas, and Planned Parenthood isn’t going to let that happen,” McQuade said.

A 72-hour waiting period could be in the wings. Missouri lawmakers in September passed a law requiring women to wait three days for an abortion after an initial visit to a doctor, even in cases of rape or incest, overriding a veto from Gov. Jay Nixon.

Missouri, Utah and South Dakota are the only states requiring women to wait 72 hours, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research organization that supports the right to abortion.

“We’re preparing for that,” McQuade said. “We have to be realistic about bills that are passing elsewhere that are likely to show up.

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

Planned Parenthood would challenge a 72-hour law in court.

“If a woman finds herself pregnant as a result of sexual violence, not only is she a victim of a horrible crime, the state tells her to spend another couple of days thinking about that,” McQuade said. “It can be both demeaning and cruel. It feels like punishment.”

Brunk said it’s possible attempts would be made for a 72-hour waiting period in the coming session, as well as “personhood” legislation, which would guarantee the rights of personhood from the beginning of biological development, including fertilization. Some work has been done in that area with the passage of Alexa’s Law, which holds that killing a pregnant woman counts as two murders, he said.

Unprecedented law

Mark Gietzen, founder of Kansas Coalition for Life, said the videotaped beheadings of journalists by Islamic terrorists have raised concerns about what he calls the “decapitation” of fetuses during abortions, making an attempt to ban it timely.

No state has ever tried for such a law, he said, but he is working with the American Center for Law and Justice, founded by Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson, on language that would make such a bill work in Kansas and in the U.S. Supreme Court.

If the right language can be found, Gietzen said, “I don’t think there’s a judge on earth that’s willing to say, ‘Decapitations are just fine.’ ”

Burkhart said bringing up decapitation is another attempt by abortion opponents to sensationalize abortion and promote it to the public as something gory and horrific.

“The bottom line is that sometimes women need abortion care, and they have the right to have abortions. There’s nothing sensational about that. It’s just a fact of life,” she said.

Brunk said Kansas has a lot of anti-abortion legislators, and they all have things they want. His job will be to sift through all the ideas and see what the Legislature can and should do in the next session.

“We want to move together carefully and thoroughly on these issues,” Brunk said. “We don’t want to just launch out and do something that’s not going to work.”

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or fmann@wichitaeagle.com.