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Healthcare | HHS nominee Kathleen Sebelius' record in Kansas shows aggressive support for abortion and bigger government

Issue: "Ready or not, here we go," March 28, 2009

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is a Roman Catholic. She says that abortion is morally unacceptable. And in April 2007, she hosted a reception for notorious late-term abortionist George Tiller of Wichita at her official residence.

This disconnect took on national significance on March 2, when President Barack Obama nominated Sebelius to head the Department of Health and Human Services. If confirmed by the Senate, Sebelius will direct a massive federal agency that employs nearly 65,000 workers and oversaw more than $700 billion in spending last year. While tasked with implementing statutory law, she will also be able to put her stamp on the president's agenda through the department's regulatory powers.

What approach she may bring to the job is illuminated by her record back home.

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In socially conservative Kansas the nation's abortion wars have spilled across the political terrain, and Sebelius has been intensely involved. Throughout her lengthy political career, she has steadfastly supported legal abortion.

As governor, she vetoed numerous pieces of pro-life legislation during six years in office. The most significant may have been last year's Comprehensive Abortion Reform Act, or CARA. Passed by large bipartisan majorities in both legislative chambers, the package would have strengthened the state's informed consent law, safeguarded against coerced abortions, and strengthened enforcement of existing late-term abortion restrictions. She also blocked abortion clinic licensing standards, late-term abortion reporting requirements, and a state matching grant program designed to assist pregnancy resource and adoption centers.

Sebelius launched her public career as a state representative (before winning two terms as the state's insurance commissioner). Over the course of four terms in the Kansas House, she opposed basic limitations on abortion by voting against parental consent and notification requirements, patient waiting periods, restrictions on post-viability abortions, and reporting requirements on the same. On at least one occasion, she voted in favor of state funding for abortion services.

The governor's relationship with Tiller and her efforts to protect other practitioners from legal scrutiny is another controversial hallmark of her time in office. By derailing requirements to report case information on late-term abortions, she made it more difficult for law enforcement officials to prosecute alleged violations of existing restrictions on the practice. Her court appointees have influenced the legal process toward a pro-abortion bias, and she even helped recruit political challengers to pro-life officials like former Attorney General Phill Kline. (After five years of legal wrangling, Tiller will finally face criminal trial later this month on 19 charges related to late-term abortion, about the same time confirmation hearings may commence for Sebelius.)

To observers like Michael Schuttloffel of the Kansas Catholic Conference, the governor's festive reception for Tiller says a lot about her personal feelings on abortion: "The back slapping and grinning between Sebelius and abortionists does not seem to indicate someone who is personally troubled by abortion." As a result of her actions on abortion, the local archbishop has instructed Sebelius not to present herself to receive communion.

Liberal groups like Catholics United have endorsed her confirmation and suggested that Sebelius is a moderate who has actually reduced the abortion rate in Kansas. As part of a larger crime package, the governor did sign a law criminalizing harm to an unborn child, and she once approved the state matching grant program for pregnancy resource centers-a program she had previously opposed and reversed her decision on the next year. Pro-lifers point to other political factors, like a veto-proof majority, that they say compelled her to support pro-life laws in a few isolated instances. "She has signed some pro-life bills, but only under the gun," says Mary Kay Culp of Kansans for Life. The organization notes that abortion rates were on the decline in Kansas preceding her tenure in office, and lowered nationally during the same period in question.

On other health-care issues, Sebelius eschewed reforms integrating consumer choice, market competition, and individual responsibility in favor of a larger role for the state government in directly providing care and coverage to Kansans. Her vision of increasing access to health care included expanding eligibility guidelines for the state children's health insurance program, or S-CHIP, up to 250 percent of the poverty level. Some analysts believe such changes expand the entitlement program into the middle class, establishing the government over parents as providers for their children and crowding out private insurance in the process. One lawmaker bristled at the expansion, pointing out that his own family would qualify for public benefits under the plan.

Sebelius signed programs into law providing dental coverage and anti-smoking counseling to poor pregnant women, but she failed in her attempt to impose a statewide indoor smoking ban. As insurance commissioner, she blocked a large insurance company merger, a move hailed by some consumer groups at the time and lauded by President Obama in his nomination announcement. She has stressed a link between education and health care, leveraging the widely accepted government obligation of providing education as a rationale for an expanded government role in providing health care. "Those children are better-prepared to learn as students when they enter a classroom," Sebelius said of S-CHIP enrollees in a blog entry for the Huffington Post website.

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