Could One Man Influence Abortion Law?

A Kansas DA has spent much of his career challenging abortion clinics.

February 12, 2009, 4:07 PM

Oct. 22, 2007 — -- Depending on whom you ask, Johnson County, Kan., District Attorney Phill Kline is either an agenda-driven prosecutor operating outside the law or one of the best friends the anti-abortion rights movement has ever had.

And there's no lack of witnesses in his home state willing to testify about their opinion.

"He's a person who is incredibly principled to the point where he sacrificed his own political career to pursue justice and uphold the constitution and the laws of the state of Kansas," said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion rights organization that organizes protests outside many Kansas clinics.

Newman's Operation Rescue named Kline "Man of the Year" in 2006.

But just one year earlier, Planned Parenthood – the nation's leading provider of sexual and reproductive health care (including abortions) – placed Kline on its list of "Seven Politicians You Don't Want in Your Bedroom."

"Phill Kline continues to further his political ambition of making abortion illegal by using unethical tactics in his role as District Attorney," said Peter Brownlie, CEO of Planned Parenthood in Kansas and Mid-Missouri, in a statement on the organization's Web site.

The prosecutor's latest salvo against the abortion industry began Oct. 17, when he filed a 107-count criminal complaint against Brownlie's Comprehensive Health of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, located in Overland Park, Kan. Twenty-three of the counts are felony charges.

The clinic has denied any wrongdoing and has called the complaints "baseless."

In addition to facing charges of performing illegal late-term abortions, Kline charged the clinic with false writing, failure to maintain records and failure to determine viability.

Under Kansas state law, abortion is legal only when a doctor affirms that the fetus can't live independently outside of the mother's womb, also known as determining viability. If the fetus is viable, two doctors must attest that the abortion is necessary for the well-being of the mother's physical or mental health.

Kline's latest strike follows several previous attempts to curb the abortion industry in Kansas. And while some applaud his dedication – primarily abortion opponents – women's reproductive rights activists are beginning to wonder whether Kline might deliver a big blow to abortion rights not only in Kansas but across the country.

While Kline refused to speak directly to, his spokesman, Brian Burgess, told us it's no secret Kline considers himself as "unabashedly pro-life."

Beginning his political career in the House of Representatives, Kline was a key player in framing Kansas' abortion laws.

Kansas is known not only as a "red state" but is regularly dubbed by anti-abortion activists as the "abortion capital of the world," primarily because Dr. George Tiller – one of the few doctors in the country who still performs late-term abortions – has a clinic in Wichita.

Elected as Kansas attorney general in 2002, Kline later obtained 90 patient records from Tiller's clinic and several others for an investigation into unreported sexual assaults of minors. Just a few months later, Kline filed 30 misdemeanor counts against Tiller for allegedly performing abortions on underage girls.

Kline denies any ruse on his part, but critics argue that his initial investigation into the clinics was always intended as a "witch hunt" against abortion providers.

Further controversy ensued when some of the patients' files were leaked to Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, who had Kline as a guest on his show.

"Mr. Kline has denied he gave the files to Bill O'Reilly," said Burgess, who was tight-lipped about the details of any of the current or former complaints filed by Kline.

Kline's case against Tiller was eventually thrown out by the Kansas Supreme Court.

"[The charges against Dr. Tiller] were absolutely inaccurate and false and based on a completely skewed interpretation of the right to abort statute," said Ashley Anstaett, the spokeswoman for Kansas' current Attorney General Paul Morrison, who defeated Kline in the 2006 attorney general's race.

"Kline just personifies the abortion debate," Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at Kansas University, told "...It is very much seen, I think, even by the pro-life people, that Kline's personal beliefs are his No. 1 priority."

Kline's spokesperson added that the district attorney has focused on cases unrelated to the abortion debate. Kline argued before the United States Supreme Court in Kansas v. Marsh, which reinstated the death penalty in Kansas.

"Over the years, he's become more passionate about the anti-abortion debate," said Loomis, who served briefly as the spokesperson for Kansas' democratic governor in 2004. "He's very ambitious. I think he saw this as a ticket in some ways. He's always been conservative but [abortion] was an avenue he was going to plow ahead on as far as he could."

Kline's popularity, even among moderate conservatives and some republicans, has waned throughout the judicial community, who still view him as the man who cost the party the attorney general's post.

Abortion rights advocates told that if Kline is successful in his charges against Planned Parenthood, women all over the country may have a harder time getting abortions.

"[Kline's complaints] could affect women all over the country," said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. "Women far beyond the borders of Kansas go to places like Dr. Tiller's clinic, because he is one of the very few who has the courage to do this kind of work. He's [part of] a handful of doctors who still do it."

Even the fact that Kline is going after these abortion clinics could make it harder for women to receive the care they need, Gandy told The more targeted these clinics become, she said, the fewer doctors who will be willing to work at them.

And, with so few doctors already available to perform late-term abortions – which Gandy said she believed women usually only resort to in dire circumstances – having to travel all the way to Kansas puts an additional financial burden on women who are already worried about financing the procedure. If clinics in Kansas are closed, women would potentially have to travel even farther and spend more.

Advocates for Kline's cause say that no matter what the outcome of the case, the DA is doing the right thing by holding the clinics accountable under the law.

"Anytime anyone tries to oversee the abortion industry at all they are called political or biased," said Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life, an affiliate of the National Right to Life Committee. "They should have oversight like any other industry."

Kline, from his post as a county prosecutor, has made no secret of his desire to go after the clinics.

"I'm passionately pro-life, and I believe laws should be enforced. There's no doubt about it," Kline told The Wichita Eagle. "My oath is to enforce the law, that is what I do."

Kline has said he will not run for re-election in 2008, and speculation has already begun about his next moves.

"I think even within the Republican Party this is a guy who has probably outlived his welcome," said Loomis, who added that when Kline was elected to the AG post, several of his co-workers left, claiming his anti-abortion rights agenda made them uncomfortable.

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