Anti-abortion legislators in Kansas are pushing again this year to rewrite state restrictions on late-term procedures and for other initiatives, despite the murder of Dr. George Tiller.
Tiller was the face of the abortion debate in Kansas -- and sometimes nationally -- because his Wichita clinic was among a few in the U.S. performing abortions in the last weeks of pregnancy. Tiller's clinic has been closed since he was shot to death in May and no doctor or clinic elsewhere in Kansas is doing the same work.
But legislators who oppose abortion still expect to pass a bill requiring doctors who perform late-term procedures to report more information to the state and making it possible for them to face lawsuits if patients or others come to believe their abortions violated state law. Abortion opponents contend such issues are still compelling, even if no doctor or clinic is performing abortions as late as Tiller did.
Such a bill passed last year but was vetoed by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, an abortion rights Democrat, days before she was confirmed as U.S. health and human services secretary. Kansas House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lance Kinzer, an Olathe Republican, said he'll use that measure as a starting point for a debate this year.
Meanwhile, Sen. Tim Huelskamp, a Fowler Republican, said he'll revive his proposal to prevent $250,000 in federal funds from flowing through the state to Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, which operates an abortion clinic in Overland Park. The money is for programs to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and Sebelius' successor, Gov. Mark Parkinson, another abortion rights Democrat, vetoed Huelskamp's proposal in May.
Some abortion rights supporters had hoped for a break from the Legislature's perennial debates over abortion because of lingering revulsion over Tiller's murder, including among many abortion opponents. Abortion rights backers also contend the state's ongoing budget problems should take precedence.
But Kinzer and other abortion opponents see postponing the debates as a mistake.
"The number of variables that can come into play 12 months from now as opposed to proceeding now are impossible to calculate," Kinzer said.
Peter Brownlie, president and chief executive officer of the Planned Parenthood chapter, said he's not surprised at abortion opponents' plans. He sees the annual legislative disputes mainly as an effort to help anti-abortion groups raise money.
"There's nobody in the state of Kansas who's doing abortions past 22 weeks of pregnancy. It's a moot issue, from a practical standpoint," he said. "For the Legislature to continue to spend significant amounts of its time on an issue that has no practical impact is waste of taxpayer money and legislative time."
Abortion opponents believe they have the same strong majorities in both legislative chambers for a bill rewriting late-term abortion restrictions and are close to the two-thirds majorities necessary to override a veto.
Parkinson spokeswoman Beth Martino declined to speculate on whether he would veto such legislation, but in an interview only days after becoming governor, Parkinson said his and Sebelius' views on abortion are "very similar."
"His views have not changed since last April, as far as I know," Martino acknowledged.
Martino said Parkinson would veto Huelskamp's proposal on Planned Parenthood's funding again if it came to the governor in the same form.
Bob Beatty, a Washburn University of Topeka political scientist, said abortion opponents might do better to wait until after Parkinson leaves office. He's not running for a full term this year, and U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, an anti-abortion Republican, is a strong favorite to replace him.
Also, Beatty said, the debate over the state's budget problems will dominate the annual 90-day legislative session that begins Jan. 11.
Brownlie noted the trial of Scott Roeder, the man charged with killing Tiller, is scheduled to begin in Wichita the day the Legislature convenes. Beatty said it could cast a shadow over a legislative debate.
"In legislative sessions, it is a zero-sum game: There's only time and energy and political will for a certain number of issues," Beatty said.
For years, Tiller's clinic inspired abortion opponents to push for new restrictions on abortion, particularly after a fetus can survive outside the womb. By 1998, they'd succeeded in passing reporting requirements and restrictions on late-term procedures, but they've believed for years that the laws aren't adequately enforced.
Those enforcement issues still remain, said Mary Kay Culp, executive director of the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life. Several out-of-state doctors performed abortions at Tiller's clinic and one, Dr. Leroy Carhart, of Bellvue, Neb., considered opening a Kansas clinic after Tiller's death.
"The enforcement of the law remains nonexistent, which is inviting to late-term abortionists everywhere," Culp said.
Also, Planned Parenthood's funding is a big irritant for abortion opponents. Huelskamp rejects the argument that it's acceptable because it doesn't pay for abortions.
"It's one organization," he said. "It certainly subsidizes the abortion side."