Kansas Republicans pass bill criminalizing abortion coercion, dismiss effort to expand it

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Backed by a Republican majority, Kansas lawmakers approved legislation Monday making it illegal to coerce a woman into getting an abortion.

GOP legislators sidestepped efforts from Democrats to criminalize all forms of reproductive coercion arguing the language would reinforce Kansas’ existing protections for abortion rights.

The bill, which the Kansas House approved with a near-veto-proof majority Monday roughly along party lines, now heads to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s desk. The Kansas Senate passed the measure last week.

It would be a felony to coerce a pregnant person into undergoing an abortion under the measure. It defines coercion as making physical or financial threats to a pregnant person’s wellbeing, the withholding of legal documents such as passports, controlling access to medication, or legal threats.

Proponents argued the legislation is essential to protecting women who may be forced into a decision they didn’t want.

“The bill is very carefully crafted, very narrowly tailored to address these situations where these women who may be victims of sex abuse or human trafficking are being compelled to have an abortion,” Jeanne Gawdun, a lobbyist for Kansans for Life, said. “It gives them some legal backing for their protection, also it gives tools to prosecutors to be able to seek justice.”

Rep. Susan Estes, a Wichita Republican, said the bill would successfully “protect our young people.”

However, Rep. Jo Ella Hoye, a Lenexa Democrat, argued the bill was too vague and did not clearly establish what would and would not be considered coercion.

“This is not ready for prime time,” she said. “This is not ready to be put on the books. But there is bipartisan support to keep this moving.”

Though abortion is generally an intensely partisan issue in Kansas the proposal had enjoyed rare bipartisan support when it was first introduced. Much of that support disintegrated after Republican lawmakers accepted, and then quickly rejected, an effort to broaden the bill to criminalize other forms of reproductive coercion – including abusive control of a woman’s contraceptives.

The amendment had gained bipartisan support in a House committee. But lawmakers instead moved forward with a Senate version of the bill that was limited to abortion.

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Democrat, said the efforts to include all forms of reproductive coercion failed because anti-abortion groups in Kansas seek to normalize reproductive coercion for women.

“A darker aspect of the groups that stripped this off is that perhaps they don’t want there to be a crime of reproductive coercion,” Clayton said. “Perhaps they want the state to be able to do that to Kansas women. I certainly hope that wouldn’t be the case, but if not, then why work so hard to strip that off?”

Republicans said any broader language on reproductive coercion was overly vague. Gawdun, with Kansans for Life, said a broader bill would have distracted from the effort to protect those who may be coerced into an abortion.

Rep. Rebecca Schmoe, an Ottawa Republican who has spoken publicly about a doctor attempting to coerce her into an abortion she was young, argued the bill should remain limited to avoid codifying the 2019 state Supreme Court decision that established rights to abortion in Kansas.

If the 2019 decision were to fall or public opinion on abortion were to shift, she said, the language of the amendment from Democrats would tie the Legislature’s hands.

“We were not comfortable with having further future conversations and what would happen if public opinion changed,” Schmoe said. “We don’t want to get ourselves into a situation where we’re having to repeal laws in order to cater to special interests.”

She pledged to return to the issue next year and look at how Kansas’ domestic violence statutes could be strengthened.

“I have been in an abusive relationship and I understand the pressure that can come in situations like that and I would never want to put a woman into a position where she’s being trapped in a situation due to threat of violence if she doesn’t move forward,” she said. “It’s a really delicate tight rope and I’m all for having conversations.

Hoye also pledged to bring back legislation prohibiting reproductive coercion next year.

“Now that this issue is on my radar due to this bill, I know there is a way to incorporate this issue into what we have now,” she said. “If this bill does end up making it to the governor’s desk and she decides she can’t support it, I will work to get a reproductive coercion bill together.”