Kansas: “Always Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide”

This post is part of our week-long series on the personal impact of the current state of reproductive health, rights, and justice.

by Robin Marty and Jessica Mason Pieklo

Marty is RH Reality Check’s senior political reporter, focusing primarily on state legislation restricting women’s reproductive rights. Her political, women’s rights, and reproductive articles have appeared in Ms. magazine, Truthout, AlterNet, and BlogHer.

Mason Pieklo is the senior Legal Analyst at RH Reality Check and the former assistant director of the Health Law Institute at Hamline Law School in St. Paul, Minnesota. She also covers law and politics at Care2.com and her articles have appeared in Ms. magazine, Truthout, and AlterNet.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 10 of Marty and Mason Pieklo’s upcoming book, Crow After Roe: How “Separate But Equal” is the new standard in women’s health and how we can change that. The book takes a look at twelve states that since 2010 have each passed a different anti-abortion or anti-women’s health law, and how each law is explicitly written to provoke a repeal of Roe v. Wade or to reinforce a distinctly separate and unequal system of delivering health care to women. The book will detail not just the history of the laws in question, but how they challenge Roe v. Wade and create a reproductive health care system that puts women—especially poor, rural, or those of color—into a separate class with fewer choices or control.

H.B. 2523 passed through the Senate and headed to the governor for approval. Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas signed “The Health Care Rights of Conscience Act” into law on May 14, 2012. He may not have been able to financially strangle the ability to provide abortions out of the state, but at least he could now anoint even more people to act as gatekeepers to accessing women’s reproductive rights.

The bill is designed to facilitate conscious refusals for contraception, but as Weatherford explains, one of the most harmful pieces is the referral ban.

“There is a common misunderstanding of the ban, which is ‘What’s the big deal? if someone doesn’t want to prescribe birth control or emergency contraception, they shouldn’t have to,’” said Holly Weatherford, Program Director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri. “But their follow-up is always that they should then refer patients to where they can receive those services. This bill includes a referral ban which means that hospitals and organizations don’t have to require physicians to refer for certain services. Kansas is a managed-care Medicaid system. That means women need referrals for services to be provided so the referral ban is simply another barrier for women.”

Those barriers particularly harm women in the western part of the state, as Weatherford explains. “These are low-income rural population that might have one pharmacist within a thirty-mile radius, which is a significant distance for someone to travel who might not have the means to travel. And then you’re also looking at affordable health care, so a lot of people will use a Planned Parenthood or a federally qualified health center, and there might not be one for four or five counties. As we see more and more restrictions to women’s health being passed and implemented in Kansas I believe we are also seeing a shift from focusing on targeting providers to targeting the patient, targeting women.”

As if that were not enough, women in Kansas have another worry when accessing reproductive care: Operation Rescue getting a hold of their names and addresses. “One of the things that is most shocking about Operation Rescue and Kansans for Life, those two organizations work closely together, is how these tactics have been accepted and the harassment has been normalized. It’s another tool in the tool box for them and there is not the outrage that I would think would occur when those tactics are employed and then bragged about. It’s almost just accepted as that’s what they do” Weatherford said.

In the spring of 2012 Operation Rescue made a stunning announcement. It was in possess of the records of at least 86 women and girls who were treated in one month at an abortion clinic in Kansas. Just exactly how Operation Rescue came into possession remains a bit of a mystery. Clinic officials confirmed a break-in around the time Operation Rescue claims it came into possession of the records, but the clinic didn’t have reason to think any patient data had been breached.

Operation Rescue’s plan was to turn the records over to the state and file a complaint against the provider. In the meantime, it posted the records online after the group went through each record to redact the patient names and other identifying information.

The Brownback administration was all to happy to play along with Operation Rescue’s plan and initiated investigations against the clinic based on Operation Rescue’s allegations that providers failed to report cases where the pregnancy was the result of incest or involved a minor to state health authorities. The clinic denied the allegations and challenged the group in court.

Cheryl Sullenger, Operation Rescue’s senior policy adviser, said that a confidential informant provided the papers and that no laws were broken in their acquisition. “It’s no secret we seek information about abortion clinics,” Sullenger said. Sullenger wouldn’t explain how the group got the records, essentially offering up “trust us” as evidence no laws have been broken. Much in the same way the women and girls who had abortions during that period are expected to “trust” them that they have kept their information confidential, and they have nothing to fear about an intimidating anti-abortion group having their names and home addresses.

It’s an assurance the Brownback administration has been all-too-happy to indulge to devastating consequences for women in his state. As Weatherford explains, “Brownback’s statement that he’ll sign any pro-life bill that gets to his desk has empowered the pro-life community in the state in a way they had not been empowered before.”

The strategy unfolding in Kansas is clear. Regulate abortion out of existence. Whatever can’t be regulated out of existence should then be terrorized into submission.

[Editor’s Note: more people than just cis women need and want access to affordable reproductive health care, including abortion.]

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