News Flash: An Abortion Provider Wins in Kansas

AP Photo/John Hanna

Dr. Ann Kristin Neuhaus observes a State Board of Healing Arts meeting flanked by her attorneys, Kelly Kauffman, left, and Bob Eye in Topeka, Kansas.

Since the death of George Tiller, the third-trimester abortion provider who was killed in Wichita in 2009, former abortion doctor Ann Kristin Neuhaus has been fighting Operation Rescue—one of the country’s most radical anti-choice groups—alone. As part of their effort to oust “Tiller the Killer,” Operation Rescue lodged frequent accusations of medical misconduct with the Board of Healing Arts, the state medical licensing board, against Tiller and his colleagues. After his murder, Operation Rescue turned the full force of its ire on Neuhaus, who had worked on and off as a consultant for Tiller in the early 2000s. 

Appeals to the Board of Healing Arts hadn’t worked in the past, but the 2010 elections swept in Sam Brownback, a virulent opponent of abortion, as governor. Brownback had the power to select new members for the board, and he immediately made it clear how he'd use that power: His first choice was Richard Macias, a lawyer for Operation Rescue. Over the following months, Brownback continued to appoint members with nakedly anti-choice leanings. In 2012, prompted by an Operation Rescue complaint, the Board of Healing Arts revoked Neuhaus’s license and handed her the bill for the proceedings—more than $90,000. 

“It was so demoralizing,” Neuhaus says. “I’d have to file for bankruptcy to pay what they said I owed. But losing my license was even worse. Thirty years of work were gone. I was back to square one.”

Earlier this week, Neuhaus got some good news. A Kansas district judge overturned the order that revoked her license, saying the board hadn’t proved that she deserved to lose her certification. The decision to yank Neuhaus’s license, he wrote, rested on the board’s “inference” that there was a problem with her records. “In this Court's view, such an inference is too slim, too frail, and too conjectural.”

It was clear to Neuhaus and Bob Eye, her attorney, that the board was out for her license as soon as they began investigating her case. This was despite the fact that Neuhaus had never performed an abortion in Tiller’s clinic. Under Kansas law, a third-trimester abortion was only legal if a second doctor confirmed that the woman would suffer “substantial and irreversible harm” by continuing her pregnancy. Neuhaus, who owned a first-trimester abortion clinic in another part of the state, moonlighted as a consultant for Tiller, providing those second opinions. The complaint alleged that in a handful of cases in 2003, Neuhaus had violated Kansas law on two counts—by performing shoddy medical examinations on third-trimester abortion patients and by keeping inadequate records. 

I chronicled Neuhaus’s struggles with the Board of Healing Arts in a story published last week, which surveyed the growing pattern of anti-choice appointments to state health and medical boards. Republican governors like Brownback are using the little-known power of these medical boards to target and discredit individual doctors like Neuhaus. Medical regulatory boards have traditionally been apolitical, but as the practice shows, the boards’ expansive purview can be an ideal mechanism for anti-choice groups to put abortion doctors—and clinics—out of business quietly, without the hassle of passing restrictive new laws. 

The courts are the main recourse for doctors like Neuhaus, ensnared by anti-choice politics in a system that’s supposed to ensure patient safety. Franklin Theis, the judge, pointed out that none of Neuhaus’s former patients had lodged a complaint or presented evidence against her; nor did she rubber-stamp every patient who wanted her approval for the procedure. Theis didn’t let Neuhaus off the hook for her incomplete files, which even she acknowledges were “skimpy.” They needed to be, she says, because they could easily fall into the wrong hands. (Her suspicions were confirmed when confidential details from Tiller’s archives made their way onto Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show in 2006.) In the opinion, Theis admonished Neuhaus, saying her records fell “below any reasonable required standard of care for their maintenance.” But he concluded that the intent wasn’t nefarious, and poor record-keeping isn’t grounds to revoke a medical license. 

The Board of Healing Arts will meet on Friday to decide whether to appeal the case. It can also vote to start over and begin investigating Neuhaus again. But at least for now, Neuhaus won’t have to pay the $90,000 in court fees, and there’s a possibility that she’ll get her medical license back. Yesterday, she began to investigate what the reinstatement process would be. “I feel elated and I feel vindicated,” Neuhaus says. “It’s inspiring to see that the system works—at least some of the time.” But she won’t be returning to abortion practice anytime soon. “At certain points in the process with the board, I’d think about going back to a clinic and I’d get physically ill,” she says. “It would take a lot to get me back into that work. I really can’t recommend putting yourself on the firing line.”

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