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Judge blocks Kansas law that banned prescribing abortion pills over telemedicine

Abortion pill instructions are pictured.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
/
Kansas News Service

A Kansas judge has blocked a law banning doctors from prescribing abortion-inducing pills over telemedicine. Abortion providers say that’ll help expand access in rural Kansas, but the legal fight isn’t over.

WICHITA, Kansas — Kansas women could soon be able to seek abortion pills through telemedicine appointments after a judge blocked a state law banning the practice.

Abortion providers and abortion rights advocates say the decision will help expand access to abortion for people across the state, particularly in areas like western Kansas that might be several hours from the nearest clinic. The state’s five clinics are clustered around Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas.

The decision “paves the way for Kansas abortion clinics to expand services to women in remote, underserved areas of Kansas,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, in a statement.

The legal status of telemedicine abortion has been tied up in Kansas courts for years, since the Center for Reproductive Rights and Wichita-based clinic Trust Women challenged a 2011 law requiring doctors to be in the same room as patients when prescribing abortion-inducing medication.

Last week, Shawnee County District Court Judge Teresa Watson granted a temporary injunction barring enforcement of the law. It follows her earlier ruling this summer denying an injunction, which an appellate court overturned.

While the legal fight is likely to continue in the Kansas court system, the decision will allow Kansas clinics to offer telemedicine abortion services. Existing restrictions including a mandatory 24-hour waiting period and parental consent rules for minors will still apply.

“Access to telemedicine services for Kansans will go a long way to easing the strain on our reproductive health care systems in the state,” Trust Women co-executive director Rebecca Tong said in a statement.

Anti-abortion advocates said they’re disappointed by the decision.

“While it’s disappointing, it’s certainly not surprising,” said Jeanne Gawdun, director of government relations with Kansans for Life. “It’s just one of the many limits that are protective for women and their children that (abortion providers) have fought and will continue to fight.”

The group said legal challenges to abortion laws like this are possible because voters rejected a constitutional amendment in August that would have stripped abortion protections from the state constitution.

It might still be several months before Kansas clinics begin offering telemedicine abortion services.

“There’s still some infrastructure that needs to be developed in order to successfully roll out a quality telehealth abortion care program,” Trust Women spokesperson Zachary Gingrich-Gaylord said.

He said the clinic continues to be inundated by out-of-state patients seeking appointments.

“Right now, our Wichita clinic is focused on trying to see as many people in clinic as possible,” he said. “We're still receiving far more phone calls than we can answer in a given day.”

Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which operates three Kansas clinics, didn’t immediately say whether or when it might offer telemedicine abortion services in the future.

“We applaud this step towards increasing accessibility to abortion services and continue to evaluate our next steps,” president and CEO Emily Wales said in a statement.

Medication abortion, or the use of the drugs to end a pregnancy, accounts for over two thirds of abortions in Kansas, according to the state health department. Mifepristone and misoprostol, which are often used together, are approved by the Food and Drug Administration to end pregnancies up to 10 weeks.

Some Kansans have skirted the state’s telemedicine ban by using overseas pharmacies and mail-forwarding services. Online orders of abortion pills from Europe-based pharmacy Aid Access from Kansas doubled between May and August of this year, according to data released earlier this month.

Experts say the rise could be tied to increased difficulty in obtaining abortion appointments in Kansas following the U.S. Supreme Court decision this summer overturning Roe v. Wade, which spurred a wave of abortion bans across the country and sent out-of-state patients to Kansas clinics.

“Banning telehealth for medication abortion had been something that conservative states had glommed on to starting about a decade ago,” said Elizabeth Nash, a state policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.

Besides Kansas, 18 states have laws banning telemedicine abortions in effect, many of which also ban abortion in most cases. Only seven other states ban telemedicine abortion in instances where it would be legal in person.

“Kansas is a fairly critical state for abortion access in the country,” Nash said. “While the decision in this case is very important … it’s also not the end of the road. The case is not finished, and there’s certainly more that’s going to happen in the Legislature around abortion in the coming years.”

Rose Conlon reports on health for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter at @rosebconlon or email her at conlon@kmuw.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Rose Conlon is a reporter based at KMUW in Wichita, but serves as part of the Kansas News Service, a partnership of public radio stations across Kansas. She covers health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.