Kansas judge won’t give go-ahead for telemedicine abortions

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A state court judge declined Monday to give a Kansas clinic permission to provide telemedicine abortions.

Shawnee County District Judge Teresa Watson rejected a request from the Trust Women Foundation for an injunction that would have blocked the state from enforcing laws against telemedicine abortions. She did so despite another judge’s ruling that no ban can be enforced and a Kansas Supreme Court ruling in April that access to abortion is a “fundamental” right under the state constitution.

The foundation operates a Wichita clinic that in October began providing pregnancy-ending medications to patients who conferred with off-site doctors by webcam. But the clinic stopped Dec. 31, saying it the legal climate was too uncertain.

The Legislature has passed three laws aimed at banning telemedicine abortions since 2011, but all were put in limbo by legal challenges. Trust Women said the local district attorney and the state medical board wouldn’t promise in writing that the clinic is allowed to do the abortions.

Watson’s decision is the first lower-court ruling on abortion since the state Supreme Court’s sweeping ruling protecting abortion rights.

Eighteen other states have laws requiring doctors to be physically present when abortion medications are dispensed, according to groups on both sides of the issue, and an Iowa law has been blocked in court. The Wichita clinic has two doctors who live outside Kansas and can be at the clinic two days a week.

The Kansas attorney general’s office argued that patients aren’t harmed if the clinic does not have permission to do telemedicine abortions.

However, during a hearing in May, Trust Women CEO Julie Burkhart testified that webcam conferences made the doctors available an extra eight to 12 hours a week and sometimes cut patient wait times to less than two hours from six to eight hours. Trust Women also hopes eventually to open a clinic in rural Kansas offering telemedicine abortions.

The clinic also faces a complaint over its past telemedicine abortions filed with the State Board of Healing Arts from the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life. The board’s 15 members were named by anti-abortion Republican governors. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, an abortion rights supporter, took office in January and cannot fill any spots until four members’ terms expire June 30.

Kansas enacted its first telemedicine-abortion ban in 2011, only to see it swept up in a broader lawsuit against multiple restrictions. Another Shawnee County judge, Franklin Theis, blocked all of the restrictions together.

Theis ruled Dec. 31 that his order on the 2011 restrictions also blocked a 2015 version of the telemedicine-abortion ban. And he declared that a 2018 version was an “air ball” without enforcement provisions. The state has appealed.

Kansans for Life launched its complaint against the clinic before Theis’ ruling in December and received a notice in April that it had been assigned to an investigator. The Board of Healing Arts regulates the clinic’s physicians, while the clinic itself is regulated by the state health department, which is under Kelly’s control.

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