Judge refuses to block Kan. abortion insurance law

By ROXANA HEGEMAN | September 29, 2011 | 4:30 PM EDT

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A federal judge refused Thursday to block a new Kansas law restricting insurance coverage for abortions, meaning women will have to pay for the procedure on their own or buy separate policies as a lawsuit challenging the controversial law plays out in court.

The law prohibits insurance companies from offering abortion coverage as part of general health plans, except when a woman's life is at risk. Patients who want abortion coverage would have to buy supplemental policies, known as riders, covering only abortion.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the state after the law took effect in July, arguing that lawmakers' true intent was to create obstacles for women seeking abortions, and asked that the law be put on hold.

U.S. District Judge Wesley Brown rejected the request, arguing that the group failed to show that the law "actually has the effect of creating a substantial obstacle to obtaining abortions." The ACLU also claimed the law was discriminatory because men can buy a general health plan for all their reproductive needs, but Brown said the group failed to show a likelihood of prevailing on that claim, too.

But he told the ACLU it could try again, noting his decision wasn't a final ruling on the merits of their claims. He also ordered an expedited schedule so the case would move more quickly through the courts.

Supporters of the insurance restrictions contend that people who oppose abortion shouldn't be forced to pay for such coverage in a general health plan. The law was among several major anti-abortion initiatives approved by Kansas legislators and signed into law this year by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who called on lawmakers to create "a culture of life" after he took office in January.

"The law appears to rationally further a state interest in allowing the State's citizens to avoid paying insurance premiums for services to which they have a moral objection," Brown wrote in his 19-page order. "Whether the practical effect of the law is to actually create a substantial obstacle is another question, but plaintiff has not attempted in this motion to put on evidence to establish such an effect, and the court expresses no opinion here on that question."

The state law appears to draw heavily from federal law, said Brown, who at age 104 is the nation's oldest sitting federal judge. He noted that the federal health care overhaul also authorized states to prohibit abortion coverage in policies sold on state-level exchanges, where individuals and small businesses would be able to choose from different health care plans and compare coverage options. The new Kansas law has such a provision.

As for the ACLU's claim that the Kansas law violates its members' rights to equal protection, since men could buy general policies for all their reproductive needs, the judge sided with the state. He agreed that such a contention must be reviewed but said the ACLU didn't provide enough evidence to convince him.

The ruling was a setback for abortion rights advocates, who have successfully blocked enforcement of two other new Kansas laws dealing with abortion. Federal judges have temporary blocked the laws — one dealing with stricter abortion clinic regulations and another that strips federal funding from a Planned Parenthood chapter — pending trial on their constitutionality.

In a separate case challenging another abortion law, a federal judge refused on Thursday to allow a national anti-abortion doctors' group to join a lawsuit over Kansas' new abortion clinic regulations. The judge said intervention by the by American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists would unnecessarily delay the case, and shot down all of the group's arguments.