New Kansas Abortion Law Among Most Restrictive in the Nation

Gov. Brownback signs a sweeping anti-abortion bill

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signs a sweeping anti-abortion bill into law during a Statehouse ceremony, Friday, Apr. 19. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Legislation signed into law in Kansas last week will sharply restrict women’s access to abortions, part of a nationwide assault on reproductive rights.

The language of the bill “declares the life of each human being begins at fertilization, with all state laws to be interpreted and construed to protect the rights, privileges, and immunities of the unborn child, subject only to the U.S. Constitution and the judicial decisions and interpretations of the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Although the statute gives a nod to women’s federally-protected right to seek abortions, it could be used to instantly criminalize procedures outright if the Supreme Court precedent in Roe v. Wade were to be overturned. The definition could also potentially be used to find other ways to restrict access and to ban certain types of contraception. Seven other states also have language defining life as beginning at fertilization.

The Kansas law also prevents abortion providers from receiving tax breaks or participating in sex education in public schools. Doctors are required to provide certain information to women before a procedure, including literature that inaccurately connects breast cancer risk to abortion. There are criminal penalties for doctors who violate the law’s provisions, including up to a year in prison for a first offense.

 

Challenge to Roe

“I think what’s extraordinary about this bill is the length it goes to to make sure it applies throughout the system,” says Sharon G. Levin, director of federal reproductive health policy for the National Women’s Law Center. The law is but one among many statutes that legislatures around the country are attempting to enact.

“This term particularly has seen a high number of bills in opposition to abortion and reproductive health as well,” Levin says. “The extreme nature of these bills has been particularly unique.”

The Kansas law comes on the heels of other extraordinary restrictions that states have put in place, including a ban on most abortions after six weeks in North Dakota and 12 weeks in Arkansas. Kansas already bans abortions after the 21st week of pregnancy, with an exception to preserve the life of the mother, but not in cases of rape or incest.

The landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade guarantees women the right to seek abortions up until the baby is considered viable outside the womb, or between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy. Opponents suspect that restrictions standing in direct contradiction to Roe are a deliberate means to challenge the precedent and get the laws in front of the Supreme Court. “They all serve a dual purpose,” says Levin, “to make access in the state where the bill is passed all but impossible, and also to create a court challenge to Roe so ultimately abortion could be deemed illegal nationally.”

 

Doctors Compelled To Lie

Other measures that states have passed or are considering include putting unnecessary and prohibitive physical requirements on facilities that provide abortions, forcing women to receive medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds prior to having an abortion and requiring doctors that perform the procedures to have privileges at nearby hospitals.

Some of the laws are on questionable First Amendment grounds, and indeed a judge in Oklahoma last year found that forcing doctors to describe an ultrasound to a woman violated the doctor’s speech protections. An article written back in 2007 by Robert C. Post of the Yale Law School challenges the right of legislatures to compel doctors to engage in ideological speech or communicate information known to be false.

However, regardless of what constitutional rights are being shredded, the anti-choice forces press onward. “Even though Roe is the law of the land, in some states we are close to having no abortion access,” Levin says. “People have the right on paper, but in practical terms abortion will be illegal.”

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