ANALYSIS: Kansas abortion foes' wins create dilemma
By JOHN HANNA
AP Political Writer
TOPEKA -- Kansas has enacted a wave of stricter abortion laws in the two-plus years Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has been in office, but those successes have led abortion opponents to discuss changing their tactics, unsure about what initiatives they'll pursue next.
Thirty-two Kansas House members are sponsoring a proposed ban on most abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can occur as early as the sixth week of pregnancy, and the idea has the backing of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. Nine of those House members also were sponsors of a previous "personhood" amendment to the state constitution aimed at banning all abortions, declaring that the constitution protects the rights of individual starting at fertilization.
Kansas not only bans most abortions starting at the 22nd week of pregnancy, but also restricts private health insurance coverage for elective abortions and offers strong legal protections for health care workers who don't want to be involved in terminating pregnancies.
Kansans for Life, the most influential anti-abortion group at the Statehouse, has encouraged lawmakers to pursue such changes. It argues that a steady, metered approach is more effective than enacting headline-grabbing measures that will be challenged in court.
But with last week's approval of more anti-abortion legislation, now an annual event in Kansas, legislators who've voted for every measure in recent years wonder whether the incremental-change tactic has run its course.
"There are a growing number of legislators who want to explore the practicality of moving toward fetal heartbeat as opposed to the incremental approach," said Rep. Steve Brunk, a Wichita Republican and a sponsor of that measure.
The discussions are likely to continue after lawmakers finish the year's business in May.
Lawmakers who oppose abortions hold at least two-thirds majorities in both chambers, and abortion rights backers have no hope of stopping any legislation if abortion opponents are united.
Kansas' new legislation stops short of measures passed recently in other states -- Arkansas banning most abortions after the 12th week of pregnancy, and North Dakota prohibiting abortions as early as the sixth week. But Elise Higgins, a lobbyist for the National Organization of Women's state chapter said, "We're close on their heels."
Abortion rights supporters, including NOW and the American Civil Liberties Union, are frustrated because they see a larger, not-quite-hidden goal of banning all abortions and even limiting access to some forms of birth control.
"If you're really about what you believe, lay it out there," said Rep. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican and vocal abortion rights advocate.
In the past, abortion opponents say, they had less cause to question the approach advocated by Kansans for Life because progress was limited by opposition from Brownback's predecessors, particularly Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson, both abortion-rights Democrats. Even during Brownback's first year in office, abortion opponents concentrated on pursuing measures they couldn't get enacted previously.
"We're at a point of re-evaluation," said state House Judiciary Chairman Lance Kinzer, an Olathe Republican and a leader among anti-abortion lawmakers. "We're now looking at a different agenda because so much of what we wanted to be accomplished, will be accomplished."
Kinzer and GOP leaders in the House and Senate still prefer the relatively cautious approach and question whether the U.S. Supreme Court is ready to overturn its holding in Roe v. Wade in 1973 that women have a right to abortion under some circumstances. Kansans for Life also worries about legal issues being brought to the state Supreme Court because five of the seven justices were appointed by Sebelius or Parkinson.
Kansans for Life officials have repeatedly argued that annual debates over abortion legislation also represent an opportunity to educate the state's residents and create lasting gains by molding public opinion.
"Our focus is to get laws that are unquestionably constitutional and upheld," said Mary Kay Culp, the group's executive director. "Rather than going to the big courthouse in Washington D.C., we're aiming for the courtroom in the woman's head."
Since Brownback took office, abortions in Kansas have declined 11 percent, and 2012's figure was the lowest in 25 years. The legislation passed late Friday bans sex-selection abortions, blocks tax breaks for providers and prohibits them from furnishing materials or instructors of public schools' sex education classes.
Holly Weatherford, lobbyist for the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri, said Kansans for Life and its allies soon will be struggling to find new proposals to pursue while avoiding high-profile proposals that would spur an automatic federal court challenge, such as the fetal heartbeat bill.
"In terms of where do we go from here, that has hasn't been challenged? I don't really know," Weatherford said.
Legislators opposing abortion expect to wrestle with the same question in the months to come.
"North Dakota and Arkansas having put their bills through does affect the conversation," Brunk said.
Political Writer John Hanna has covered Kansas government and politics since 1987. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/apjdhanna