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Kansas GOP tells candidates to forsake abortion focus

Times Staff Writer

It would seem an ideal time for Kansas politicians opposed to abortion to push that agenda, hard. The state’s two biggest clinics are under criminal indictment, and two grand juries will soon convene to consider additional charges.

But as the political season revs up, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party has issued a stern warning to his fellow conservatives: Abortion is not a winning issue.

“This is not something that the Kansas GOP is going to go out and lead on,” Christian Morgan said.

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Morgan said that he and his party remain firmly opposed to abortion. Most Republican voters in Kansas feel the same, he said. But Morgan also believes that those voters are fed up with years of fruitless political and legal maneuvering aimed at driving abortion clinics out of business. They would much prefer to see an all-out focus on curbing illegal immigration or cutting taxes, he said.

In an e-mail rebuffing an antiabortion activist who asked for more GOP support, Morgan explained: “My job is to win elections. . . . Your agenda does not fit my agenda.”

The hands-off stance frustrates Cheryl Sullenger, a leader of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue. “They’re turning their back on the grass roots,” she said. “All you’re going to see from this is defeat.”

Abortion dominated the political debate in Kansas last year, especially in the race for attorney general. The incumbent, Republican Phill Kline, was hailed as a hero by abortion foes for subpoenaing patient medical records in an attempt to build a criminal case against abortion clinics. He was soundly defeated by Democrat Paul J. Morrison, who vowed to back off the clinic prosecutions.

This election cycle, “there’s a sense of ‘Let’s move on,’ ” said Alesha Doan, a political scientist at the University of Kansas.

Candidates risk a backlash, Doan said, if they’re too closely associated with the efforts to pin criminal charges on abortion doctors. “At some point, a line is crossed, and you’re no longer just expressing your opinion and trying to do God’s work. Now you’re harassing, and voters say, ‘We don’t want to be part of that,’ ” Doan said.

Though the political rhetoric may be muted, the legal battle is intensifying.

Morrison declined to pursue the most serious charges Kline had laid out against abortion doctor George Tiller of Wichita, Kan. Morrison did, however, file 19 misdemeanor counts against Tiller, alleging that he failed to get an independent second opinion before aborting viable fetuses.

Tiller, who denies wrongdoing, is one of just a few physicians in the country to take late-term patients; he has reported aborting more than 2,600 viable fetuses in the last decade. His trial is set for March 31.

Meanwhile, Kline, newly appointed district attorney of a suburban county, has pursued a criminal case against a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic near Kansas City.

In October, a judge reviewed Kline’s evidence and found probable cause to proceed with 107 charges, including 23 felonies. Among the allegations: illegally aborting late-term fetuses; failing to determine viability; and keeping false or incomplete records.

Planned Parenthood’s regional executive, Peter Brownlie, called the charges “baseless and bogus.” The clinic’s website advertises abortions at up to 23 1/2 weeks gestation -- a point at which at least some fetuses would be viable -- but Brownlie said that for several years his doctors had turned away any patient past 22 weeks. Under Kansas law, no viability test is required before 22 weeks.

On a separate track from the criminal cases, antiabortion activists have taken advantage of a Kansas law allowing citizens, not just prosecutors, to convene grand juries. This fall, they collected enough signatures to set up two juries: one to study Tiller and the other to examine Planned Parenthood.

Tiller tried to block the process, calling it harassment, but the Kansas Supreme Court ruled this week that the 15-member grand jury must be impaneled.

Both grand juries will probably scrutinize patient records to check compliance with Kansas law, which says a viable fetus can be aborted only when two independent physicians agree that the mother would face “substantial and irreversible” harm to “a major bodily function” if she continued the pregnancy.

Nationally, some politicians have tried to make an issue out of the Kansas clinics’ legal troubles. Twelve U.S. senators recently cited the criminal case against Planned Parenthood as reason to revoke more than $300 million in federal tax money the nonprofit receives for non-abortion care, such as cancer screening and birth-control counseling.

A coalition of 60 conservative advocacy groups, including Focus on the Family and Americans United for Life, echoed that call in a letter mailed to every member of Congress.

But on the stump in Kansas, Republican candidates are largely following Morgan’s advice to steer clear of an issue that has the potential to alienate as many voters as it inspires.

“Right now it’s halftime at the 2008 election and what we’ve been doing isn’t working,” Morgan said. “It’s time to change it up a bit.”

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stephanie.simon@latimes.com


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