APNewsBreak: No Kansas reports on fetal tissue in 15 years

AP News
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Posted: Aug 06, 2015 6:09 PM

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas has received no reports on the handling of fetal tissue in the 15 years that the information has been required whenever such tissue is transferred, the state health department has disclosed amid a national debate over abortion providers' practices.

The three abortion providers in the state say they don't have programs for the legal donation of fetal tissue for research by women who've terminated their pregnancies, and follow all state and federal laws. There are also no records to indicate that any other entities, such as hospitals, have had reportable transfers.

Kansas' Department of Health and Environment's disclosure comes in response to an Associated Press open records request, made after anti-abortion activists released videos showing Planned Parenthood officials outside Kansas discussing their handling of fetal tissue. The first two videos prompted Gov. Sam Brownback to call on Kansas' medical board to investigate whether illegal trafficking in fetal tissue was occurring in the state.

A 2000 Kansas law banning the for-profit sale of fetal organs or tissue requires any person who transfers the tissue — which can be legally donated — to file an annual report with the state health department providing details about such activities.

"This is just somebody looking for a problem that's nonexistent," said Julie Burkhart, founder and CEO of Trust Women, which runs a Wichita clinic that performs abortions.

But Mary Kay Culp, executive director of the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life, said she doesn't believe anyone can say for sure how fetal organs and tissue are being handled in Kansas.

"I don't know how you would find out if you're the state unless you had surprise and frequent inspections and you were looking specifically for it," Culp said.

Brownback, a Republican, is a strong abortion opponent and cited the covertly recorded videos involving Planned Parenthood in calling for an investigation. Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri provides abortions at a clinic in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park.

"That investigation will identify whether that inhumane practice is taking place and identify whether any violations of Kansas law have occurred," Brownback's spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said.

Under the law, each annual report on fetal tissue transfers must list the date of each transfer, who transfers the tissue and who receives it and how it was delivered. The report also must describe the tissue and say how much the recipient paid to cover costs, which is allowed.

The AP initially requested reports on fetal tissue transfers from 2013 and 2014, and upon learning none had been filed in that period, asked when such a report was last filed.

"A review of the state's records indicate that no fetal tissue transfer reports have ever been filed with KDHE," Michael Smith, a department attorney and its open records officer, said in an email.

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Neither Brownback's office nor health department spokeswoman Sara Belfry would speculate about why no reports have been filed.

Legislators enacted the law in 2000 amid allegations that two independent contractors for the Planned Parenthood clinic in Overland Park profited illegally from such sales, though the clinic itself wasn't accused of wrongdoing. The FBI found that no laws were broken. Abortion opponents raised the issue again in 2008 in successfully petitioning a local grand jury investigation of the clinic. There was no indictment.

Laura McQuade, president and CEO of the regional Planned Parenthood affiliate, has said Brownback launched a "politically motivated witch hunt."

Republican state Rep. Steve Brunk, of Wichita, said it would be surprising if no fetal tissue has been transferred in 15 years. He and other abortion opponents repeatedly doubted that abortion laws were vigorously enforced from 2003 through 2010, under Democratic governors preceding Brownback who supported abortion rights.

But Burkhart said her clinic would not ignore any reporting requirement in state law, particularly with a "politically hostile environment for us."

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .