Nearly a decade ago, Thomas Frank asked the complex and controversial question: What’s the matter with Kansas? Today, the answer might be a persistent, pernicious opposition to reproductive freedom, to the right of all Americans to control their own bodies and, by extension, their own lives.
That affliction is one that ails other states, too. But in Kansas, opposition to those freedoms has long been violent. That violence became lethal with the 2009 assassination of Dr. George Tiller, one of the country's few remaining late-term abortion providers. Tiller was shot in the head by an anti-choice extremist, point blank, in his church in an act of domestic terrorism.
I was driving with my family to celebrate my college graduation when I found out about Tiller, who had been shot at before. Pro-choice advocates had been sounding the alarm about the threat to reproductive freedom for years, but Tiller's murder was a wake-up call, a terrifying moment for pro-choice people all over the country. Nowhere was the fear more palpable than in Kansas. Personally, I wondered if I had made the right decision to stay in the United States after graduation, rather than return home to Australia.
But almost four years later, safe legal abortion is once again a reality in Wichita. One of Tiller’s former colleagues opened a clinic on the premises of Tiller’s old practice. The state, however, remains a determined battleground in the fight for reproductive rights.
Last week, Kansas Republicans passed and sent to the governor the Orwellianly named Women’s Right to Know Act, which restricts access to abortion by making it more expensive, and by making it harder for physicians to provide it.
The Kansas law would make it almost impossible for people seeking abortions to use their health insurance to cover the procedure, meaning they would have to pay between $500 and $775 out of pocket. Once they have found a way to pay for the abortion, their doctor will be legally required to read them a script that explains that abortion ends the life of “a whole, separate, unique, living human being,” whether or not the doctor believes that. Doctors will also be required to warn patients of a causal link between abortion and breast cancer, which no one who has read the relevant fact-based literature on the matter believes.
This bill is a travesty on multiple fronts. Through the bill, Kansas is enshrining sex discrimination into law by prohibiting the use of insurance funds for a medical procedure that is only required by female Kansans. That provision also will disproportionately harm low-income patients who are far less able to come up with out-of-pocket funds to cover an abortion.
Next, the bill compromises the integrity of doctors by forcing them read from a script they may not agree with and that defies accepted medical facts. Like so many other anti-abortion bills, this one chips away at access to a right that is constitutionally guaranteed. That is precisely the intent and the effect of the bill’s final provision, which also aims to harm the reputations of doctors by barring health professional who work at a clinic that provides abortions from speaking in schools.
But the insults pile on when the bill suggests that women do not understand what it means to be pregnant and can’t be trusted to decide for themselves whether or continue their pregnancy.
Such offenses are not new. Pennsylvania passed its own Woman’s Right to Know Act last year. It originally included medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds for anyone seeking an abortion and required the sonogram screen to be positioned in front of the patient’s face. Last month, North Dakota passed the nation's most restrictive abortion ban, making the procedure illegal as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which is in some cases as early as six weeks after conception. In Arkansas, where the legislature has twice overridden the governor's veto of a similar "heartbeat" bill, lawmakers cut off what little funding remains for organizations that perform abortions in the state. Since those organizations serve other functions, too, Arkansas has just stripped funding from domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, and HIV and syphilis prevention programs.
Laws such as these will harm—or have already harmed—thousands of patients. They deny access to a constitutional right, turning that right into a privilege reserved only for those who can afford to leave the state to exercise it. As a result, when it comes to reproductive rights, Kansas has become a symbol of what’s the matter with America.