By nominating Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius to head the Department of Health and Human Services, the Obama administration has chosen its first battle in the culture wars. Picking a pro-choice Catholic who has been barred from receiving communion by the Church would stir headlines at any time. But Sebelius’s pro-choice record is uniquely disturbing. She is a major beneficiary of the abortion industry’s financial largesse and a protector of its political status. Despite her efforts to guard abortion providers from prosecution, Sebelius’s confirmation hearings will probably occur at the same time that George Tiller, a notorious late-term abortionist and Sebelius patron, sits for the first post-Roe trial for breaking laws restricting abortion.
Sebelius’s nomination has energized the pro-life movement and exposed endemic corruption within Kansas’s legal system. Lance Kinzer, the head of the Kansas house judiciary committee, says, “In the Sebelius years, Kansas has been a circus on the abortion issue.”
The governor portrays herself as a moderate who is “personally opposed” to abortion and cites legislation to prove the point. In 2005, she signed a law that required physicians performing abortions on girls 14 and younger to retain fetal tissue and turn it over to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation for use in potential prosecution of sex crimes against children. She credits herself for a drop in the number of abortions performed in Kansas during her two terms as governor, even though the decrease tracks national trends.
As a state legislator, however, Sebelius opposed informed-consent laws as well as measures requiring parental notification for minors obtaining abortions. As governor, she has blocked all serious attempts to regulate abortion in Kansas. Since 2005, she has vetoed two bills requiring doctors to provide medical justification for abortions of viable fetuses.
The man who principally benefited from this legislation, Dr. George Tiller, is infamous in pro-life circles. Tiller claims to have performed well over 10,000 late-term abortions and is rumored to receive nearly $40,000 for each of these procedures. He is a major player in the Kansas Democratic Party. Through his PAC, ProKanDo, Tiller has invested nearly $1 million in Kansas politics. He donated more than $12,000 to Sebelius in 2002. In 2006, he cut a check for $120,000 to the Democratic Governors Association, which in turn funneled $200,000 to a PAC that Sebelius controlled. The antiabortion group Operation Rescue has publicized photos of Tiller partying with Sebelius in the governor’s mansion, which she made available for a pro-choice fundraising auction. One of the pictures shows the governor pointing to Tiller and holding up a campaign T-shirt that reads “Sebelius … Morrison 2006.”
That “Morrison” was the pro-choice Republican district attorney of Johnson County. Sebelius recruited him to the Democratic Party and supported him in a campaign against the pro-life Phil Kline for attorney general. Kline was a natural target for Sebelius. He passed several restrictions on abortion in the Kansas house. In 2002, he ran for attorney general to enforce them and won. Once elected, he leveled 107 criminal charges against Planned Parenthood and 30 more against George Tiller. According to Kline, they performed illegal abortions and falsified documents to cover up their crimes.
Sebelius chauffeured Morrison around the state on her campaign plane and made Kline’s prosecution of abortion providers the issue. Morrison campaigned on “medical privacy” and, with the help of Tiller’s ProKanDo, outspent Kline four to one to take the attorney general spot.
But instead of politely disappearing, Kline was appointed by the Johnson County GOP to serve out the remainder of Morrison’s term. From there, he continued to press his cases against Tiller and Planned Parenthood.
He stepped into a minefield. The local newspapers in Topeka and Wichita portrayed him as a dirty old man obsessed with the sexual habits of Kansans. The Kansas City Star described him as a “theocrat.” (The Star is hardly a credible outlet on this issue—the paper accepted a “Maggie” award from Planned Parenthood for its support of abortion.)
In taking over Morrison’s vacated post, Kline inherited his chief of staff, Linda Carter. She was having an extramarital affair with Morrison at the time. According to Carter, Morrison was so zealous to prevent Kline from prosecuting Sebelius allies like Tiller that he used their relationship to pressure her to work as a mole against her new boss. Carter eventually repented of the affair and went public. Morrison resigned in disgrace.
Having lost the shield of the attorney general’s office, abortion providers found new defenders in the judiciary. When a district judge decided to move forward with a trial of Planned Parenthood after examining evidence that Kline provided, the state Supreme Court intervened. It silenced the local judge, issued a gag order on health officials, and began a series of secret hearings. Two fact-finders concurred that Kline’s investigations of Planned Parenthood and Tiller were legal and reasonable, but he was put on the stand. Planned Parenthood was in effect allowed to try its own prosecutor in secret. “The entire case, from both a substantive and procedural standpoint, has been difficult to understand, it gives the appearance that things are being made up as they go along,” says Kinzer.
Attorney Caleb Stegall, an occasional TAC contributor who represented Kline in the hearings, remarked, “It is stunning that in this matter virtually the entire weight of the government apparatus … has been brought directly to bear on behalf of criminal defendants to assist them in avoiding the criminal process which so many ordinary citizens are routinely put through in the day to day routine of enforcing the law. One must ask, ‘Why?’”
The hearings were conducted under a rule dating back to frontier times and never used in the modern era. Planned Parenthood lawyers argued that any investigation into their client’s activities placed “an undue burden” on a woman’s right to choose—an argument that would make any law restricting abortion unenforceable.
In the ruling issued last December, the majority opinion chastised Kline for non-legal offenses, such as appearing on “The O’Reilly Factor” to publicize his case and consorting with pro-life groups. Tucked into the screed, the justices also vindicated Kline on the facts of the law and evidence.
Justice Kay McFarland scolded her colleagues, writing that the ruling, “reveals that the majority is more interested in reprimanding Kline for his attitude and behavior in the course of this litigation than in remediating the failure to leave a complete set of the investigation records for the incoming Attorney General.” In other words, the Supreme Court was trying Kline for his politics, little else.
“The protection of abortion in Kansas threatens many of our most fundamental and cherished rights,” says Stegall. “Political free speech is under assault and the rule of law, which restricts arbitrary and capricious acts of government, is at risk. Many who I talk to, within government and without, now fear reprisal by agents of the state should they stand up in favor of the law. And that is precisely the intended result.”
Despite the chilling effect of the high court’s intervention, the trial of George Tiller on 19 criminal counts will proceed on March 16 and may provide the backdrop for Sebelius’s confirmation hearings. As Tiller moves through the justice system, his chief defender and political benefactor will be moving to Washington.
As head of HHS, Sebelius will be able to increase Medicaid coverage for abortion and spending for stem-cell research. She could expand abortion coverage by requiring hospitals to provide that service or risk losing federal subsidies. She can incrementally implement pieces of the Obama-backed Freedom of Choice Act. Troy Newman of Operation Rescue says, “The opposition to Kathleen Sebelius is important to the pro-family movement. She is an extremist. And it gives us an opportunity to prove to the nation that Obama is an old-school radical on abortion.”
If Sebelius’s nomination exposes Obama as something other than a moderate, it makes Sen. Sam Brownback seem completely unprincipled. Considered to be the Senate’s most outspoken pro-lifer in recent years, Brownback has supported the appointment, angering long-time allies. In public, he explained the move one way: “The president won the election and has nominated a Kansan to the cabinet.” But through back channels, his aides are telling conservative outlets that it is more important to get Sebelius out of Kansas so that the Senate seat Brownback leaves in 2010 will stay in Republican hands. Just as likely, Brownback’s unexpected endorsement is an attempt to build bipartisan goodwill for his race for governor and then a re-launch of his quest for the White House.
But Sebelius’s appointment highlights more than the posturing of Obama and Brownback. It exposes the corrosive effect legal abortion has on the justice system. Abortion providers have come to expect that leaders like Kathleen Sebelius will protect them from adhering to even modest legal restrictions, expand their business with the government purse, and persecute their critics. For their sake and for “choice,” Sebelius brought near comic corruption to Kansas. One shudders to think what she will do with a mandate to bring “hope” to healthcare.
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