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Kansas abortion provider counters ‘devastation’ inflicted by restrictions on out-of-state patients

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New podcast episode: Emily Wales, CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, discusses challenges of Kansas’ abortion landscape

OVERLAND PARK — One mirrored building wall of the Planned Parenthood Great Plains office is covered with a painted uterus, with flowers drawn on the side and and a fist in the middle, punching up at a sunflower. Next to it is a slogan, bearing the phrase in giant words, “Thank you Kansas Voters!”

Look at either of these images too long, or take pictures of it, and out comes a security guard, ready to make sure the observer doesn’t harbor ill intent.

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Emily Wales, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, said the location gets a fair amount of protesters, usually men, who carry signs and attempt to use scare tactics to keep patients from accessing care. All staff members at the site are trained in safety protocols.

“The sad, complex history of abortion in Kansas, which is both protected and more accessible than in other states, but also carries the not-so distant memory of Dr. Tiller’s murder,” Wales said during an interview for the Kansas Reflector podcast. “It is not ever far from our team’s hearts or minds. So we think about it.”

George Tiller, a Wichita physician, was shot and killed in his church by an anti-abortion extremist at age 67 in 2009. Tiller provided late-term abortions for women who needed the life-saving procedure.

But Wales said the main priority for her and her team is ensuring patients feel comfortable.

“I think it can be a bit of a rallying cry for our team, like you sometimes went through literal hell to get in the front door,” Wales said. “And we’re going to do everything we can to make this a good experience.”

Kansas law allows abortions up to 22 weeks after gestation, and in cases where the mother’s life is in danger. The Kansas Supreme Court in 2019 ruled that abortion is protected under the state constitution’s right to bodily autonomy, and Kansas voters in August 2022 overwhelmingly defeated a constitutional amendment to take away the right to terminate a pregnancy.

After the federal overturn of abortion rights last year made Kansas a safe haven for reproductive health care, Wales and her staff have found it more difficult to guarantee a positive experience for patients.

Her organization, like many of the state’s other abortion providers, has been flooded with an influx of out-of-state visitors seeking care denied to them in their own states.

Emily Wales, CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, says the organization is struggling to provide care to an influx of out-of-state patients. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)
 Emily Wales, CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, says the organization is struggling to provide care to an influx of out-of-state patients. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

Wales said the organization was having trouble keeping up with appointment demand. Kansas’ annual abortion report showed a record-breaking number of out-of-state patients receiving abortions in 2022. Of the 12,318 abortions reported last year to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, 8,475 were performed on women or girls residing outside Kansas. The number is more than twice the 3,912 abortions Kansas provided out-of-state clients in 2021.

Another barrier to care is the state’s Women’s Right to Know Act, a patchwork legislation governing the state’s abortion protocols. Some of the restrictions have been in place for more than 20 years, while others were added by the GOP-controlled Legislature during the 2023 legislative session. Those restrictions are now being challenged in court.

Restrictions include a mandatory ultrasound, a 30-minute wait period, a requirement that a physician has to listen to the fetus’ heartbeat and offer the patient the chance to do so as well, and a mandate that certain paperwork has to be given to patients in printed form, in specific typeface, font size and color, at least 24 hours in advance of an abortion.

A recently added portion would require providers to tell patients who use the abortion pill about a debunked “reversal” medication that has significant health risks.

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Another provision requires providers to post inaccurate information on their websites and in clinics that abortions could increase risk of breast cancer and premature birth in the future — claims not supported by scientific research.

Wales said the law meant PPGP is having to turn away, on average, a “heartbreaking” 2-10 patients a day.

“We don’t have enough appointments to see everybody,” Wales said. “So the idea that somebody could get all the way here, feel like they hit the lottery, which is pretty much what it feels like for patients right now, when you find out you’re one of the few who get an appointment at all. And then you don’t actually get the care you need. It is devastating.”

“You see the frustration and the devastation and the anger,” Wales added. “And of course we’re the people who are here to receive it, and we’re comforting, and folks understand it’s not us, but it doesn’t make sense. It is totally illogical.”

Her organization, along with several other abortion providers, filed a June 6 lawsuit asking for a temporary injunction to block several of these restrictions.

“For most of our team, myself included, it’s just been part of the work we’ve had,” Wales said. “We’ve just built into our processes and expectation that some patients won’t complete the form correctly, won’t be able to print it out. We’ll have to get rescheduled. And that was very frustrating for patients and upsetting for staff.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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