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Lawmakers approve small changes in abortion laws

- Associated Press - Saturday, April 5, 2014

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - The Kansas Legislature has approved abortion legislation that addresses legal issues raised in state and federal lawsuits filed by abortion providers, avoiding a larger debate this year over proposals to ban the procedure early in pregnancy.

The Senate passed the bill on a 34-6 vote. The House had approved it Friday, and the measure goes next to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, a strong abortion opponent who's signed a raft of new restrictions on abortion and providers since taking office in January 2011.

Abortion opponents have said the bill makes technical changes in laws that deal with providers' websites and abortions for medical emergencies, rather than setting new policy. Abortion provider Planned Parenthood officially remained neutral on the legislation.

The bill's passage likely ends this year's debate on abortion.

The Legislature has strong GOP and anti-abortion majorities in each chamber. After a wave of new restrictions in recent years, the handling of the issue this year reflects a split among abortion opponents over tactics for further limiting pregnancy terminations. Some anti-abortion lawmakers, including Rep. Steve Brunk, the chairman of the House committee that handles abortion legislation, favor banning most abortions when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, sometimes as early as the sixth week of pregnancy.

"I would like to do it tomorrow," said Brunk, a Wichita Republican.

But Republican leaders this year followed the lead of Kansans for Life, the most influential anti-abortion group at the Statehouse, which fears that enacting such a law would lead to court rulings not only striking down such a ban but eliminating restrictions already in place.

Arkansas last year banned most abortions after the 12th week of pregnancy, and North Dakota barred them as early as the sixth week. Federal judges blocked enforcement of both.

"It does come down to tactics," said Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Shawnee Republican who strongly opposes abortion. "Every year is a new year, and you have to look at the landscape all over again."

Planned Parenthood lobbyist Elise Higgins also predicted a public backlash if Kansas lawmakers consider a fetal heartbeat proposal.

"Women in Kansas will be able to see how deeply invested politicians are in interfering in their private medical decisions," she said.

Although Kansans for Life believes the restrictions enacted previously in Kansas will withstand court scrutiny, that hasn't prevented Planned Parenthood and other providers from challenging them in state and federal court.

Those restrictions include new licensing requirements and health and safety rules for abortion providers, tighter limits on late-term abortions, a ban on gender-selection abortions and limits on private health insurance coverage for elective abortions. A law last year also spelled out in greater detail what information must be provided to patients before an abortion.

To deal with one legal issue, the bill would revise a requirement that the home pages of abortion providers' websites link to a state health department site with information about pregnancy and fetal development.

Providers would no longer have to say that the state's information is accurate and objective. They had argued the rule violated their free speech rights.

And to resolve another legal dispute, the measure also revises language in Kansas laws on medical emergencies in which abortion restrictions are waived. Critics said the existing language would make it virtually impossible to obtain an abortion in an emergency, and even though Kansans for Life disputed that assertion, it said the wording was flawed.

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Online:

Information about the abortion bill: http://bit.ly/PEIVuq

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at www.twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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