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Wichita Clinic Fights To Expand Abortion Access Despite Lack Of Willing, Local Doctors

Andrea Allen
Wikimedia Commons, bit.ly/2M4AQBz

In April, the Kansas Supreme Court said the state’s constitution gives women a right to abortion.

That landmark ruling bolsters an ongoing lawsuit to expand access to abortion in Wichita. The case aims to clear the way for a clinic there — unable to find any willing, local doctors — to lean more on physicians in other states.

Trust Women runs one of four clinics in Kansas where women can get abortions. It wants a district judge in Topeka to block the Sedgwick County district attorney and the Kansas Board of Healing Arts from prosecuting or taking other action against doctors who help it.

“People struggle to get access to health care,” Trust Women CEO Julie Burkhart said. “We want to be able to broaden that access for people in Kansas so they can continue to make decisions about their lives and their health care.”

At issue is a state ban on telemedicine abortions — in which a physician isn’t on site at the clinic where a woman takes medication to induce abortion. Instead, the physician consults with her, observes her ultrasound, reviews her medical records and guides her procedure over a remote video connection.

Kansas lawmakers banned telemedicine abortion years ago, but a judge blocked the ban pending a court challenge.

That case is ongoing. But a second lawsuit arose recently because Trust Women fears some state and local agencies won’t follow the judge’s injunction.

The Kansas Attorney General’s Office has argued the years-old injunction isn’t valid anymore and doesn’t apply to all state and local agencies.

The odds of the state winning either of these cases narrowed significantly last month when the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that women have a right to abortion under the state constitution.

The Attorney General’s Office has been arguing in ongoing lawsuits that no such right exists. It withdrew that argument on Wednesday at a hearing in one of the two ongoing lawsuits related to telemedicine abortion.

Wednesday’s hearing was the first in the new lawsuit, which could go to trial by the end of this year.

Trust Women said its staff and physicians already face regular harassment from protesters, and in recent months, they’re facing an investigation by the Kansas Board of Healing Arts, too.

The Board won’t publicly confirm an investigation, what might have prompted a probe and who might be a focus.

Lawyers for Trust Women say the investigation relates to telemedicine abortions, but they declined to elaborate.

Trust Women flies in doctors to Wichita from other states to offer abortions in person there two days a week. It says those hours were too limited, making it difficult for many women to schedule their procedures.

So last October, the clinic added more days by connecting out-of-state doctors to their patients through telemedicine. The clinic stopped at the end of the year for fear of legal trouble.

The clinic has struggled to find doctors based in Wichita. Abortion provider George Tiller — Burkhart’s boss at the time — was murdered at his church in Wichita by an anti-abortion extremist 10 years ago this month.

If it can resume telemedicine abortions, Trust Women hopes eventually to provide abortion in more locations through that means. Namely, remote and rural parts of the state.

(This story originally listed the wrong number of clinics in Kansas that perform abortions.)

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics.

You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ or email celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2019 KCUR 89.3

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is based in the Kansas News Service’s Topeka newsroom. She writes about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. He aims to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
Celia comes to the Kansas News Service after five years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. She brings in-depth experience covering schools and education policy in Kansas as well as news at the Statehouse. In the last year she has been diving into data reporting. At the Kansas News Service she will also be producing more radio, a medium she’s been yearning to return to since graduating from Columbia University with a master’s in journalism.