Grisly Language Propels Kansas Abortion Bill as U.S. Model

Activists in Kansas and Oklahoma are seeking to outlaw a common abortion technique by using the text of legislative bills to lay bare its graphic details, a tactic that may spread across the U.S.

Republican lawmakers in both states are pushing to ban what they call “dismemberment abortion” with language supplied by National Right to Life, a Washington-based advocacy group. Opponents say the bills inaccurately describe what medical literature calls dilation and evacuation, a method used in 96 percent of second-trimester terminations, according to the National Abortion Federation.

As state legislative sessions get under way across the U.S., Republicans are tapping into momentum from the 2014 midterm elections to advance an already record-breaking wave of restrictions passed in recent years. That’s emboldened activists to revisit the practice of deploying grisly language last used to lobby for a ban on what they call partial-birth abortions, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 2007.

“Abortion care can be, in the abstract, deeply upsetting and the anti-abortion movement using the word ‘dismemberment’ is not an accident,” said Carole Joffe, a reproductive health sociologist at the University of California at San Francisco. “It puts the pro-choice movement on the defensive.”

The aim is to rebrand a medical procedure with a new and unsettling name, include clinical details of what it entails in a bill and let lawmakers’ reactions guide the way they vote.

Test Lab

Kansas has been an early adopter of abortion laws that other states emulated, including mandates that clinics resemble hospital-like surgery centers and tighter regulations on drugs. Republican Governor Sam Brownback has already said he’d sign a ban on dilation-and-evacuation abortions.

The latest bills are trial balloons for a national strategy, said Elizabeth Nash, who tracks legislation for the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research and advocacy group in Washington.

“The past four years have been about state legislatures adopting restrictions, because that’s a way to show their conservative stripes,” said Nash. “This is the new trend.”

It’s also a return to an earlier and more confrontational strategy that helped ban so-called partial-birth abortions on the federal level in 2003. That procedure, known by providers as dilation and extraction, involves the partial extraction of a fetus from the uterus and the collapse of the skull and removal of its brain and was used late in a pregnancy.

Fresh Initiative

National Right to Life sees the dilation-and-evacuation bans as a major component of its 2015 legislative agenda. The environment may be favorable: Republicans, traditionally opposed to abortion, added control of two additional governor’s seats in the November election and now hold 31. They also have control of legislatures in 31 states with majorities in a record 69 of 99 chambers.

In Oklahoma, the group contacted Republican Representative Pam Peterson to sponsor a dilation-and-evacuation bill following her years of championing the anti-abortion cause, she said. Women terminate pregnancies because they’re in the dark about what doing so actually means, she said.

“For years abortion was sold to women that it’s just a glob of tissue,” Peterson said. “It is gruesome, but it’s the truth. And people need to know the truth.”

Oklahoma’s bill defines the procedure as one “to dismember a living unborn child and extract him or her one piece at a time from the uterus through use of clamps, grasping forceps, tongs, scissors or similar instruments that, through the convergence of two rigid levers, slice, crush, and/or grasp a portion of the unborn child’s body to cut or rip it off.” Kansas’s is virtually identical.

“With the discussion about, and passage of this bill, the public will see that dismemberment abortions brutally –- and unacceptably –- rip apart small human beings,” Kathy Ostrowski, legislative director of National Right to Life affiliate Kansans for Life, said in a statement.

Dramatic Language

Abortion-rights supporters say they worry that what they see as misleading and inflammatory language will carry the day.

Julie Burkhart, who in 2013 re-opened an abortion clinic once run by slain doctor George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas, says the real motivation of the bill’s backers is to eliminate all abortions.

“They really thrive on sensationalizing abortion care, which is disheartening because we have real women and real families who come in every day to get the health care they need,” she said.

Bruce Price, a Kansas-born physician and associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, said in written testimony to the legislature that the proposal would force physicians to “deviate from the best, most sound care for patients; hence, putting the woman’s life at risk.”

(An earlier version of the story corrected Ostrowski’s title in 14th paragraph.)

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