Kansans Call Grand Jury Over Abortion Clinic

A grand jury in Wichita, Kan., is due to investigate whether a clinic that performs abortions is breaking the law. The grand jury was not called by a local prosecutor. Kansas is one of six states where citizens are allowed to call up grand juries.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

If you're like our listener Cliff Burke(ph), this is your day. Mr. Burke wrote us the other day to complain every day, week after week, you start with the election. Hillary this, Obama that. There comes a time to stop beating a dead horse. And listener Margie McLain(ph) added, other things are happening in the world.

MONTAGNE: Here's why this is their day. New Hampshire is voting. And on the day of major elections, we tend to cutback our political coverage. It gives people a little extra room to vote. So we'll watch the New Hampshire vote all day long.

INSKEEP: But we'll wait for the in-depth coverage until there's actually something to tell you. Many NPR stations will carry an election special tonight after the polls close. And in the meantime, here is some of the other news.

MONTAGNE: And that news includes two legal stories on emotional issues. A grand jury convenes in Wichita, Kansas, today to investigate whether a clinic where abortions are performed is breaking the law. The grand jury was not called by a local prosecutor. Instead a state law allows citizens to petition for a grand jury. Kansas is one of six states where citizens are allowed to call up these juries.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: It had been a couple of decades since anyone used the citizens' petition drive to call for a grand jury in Kansas when the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families ran across the law.

Mr. PHILLIP COSBY (Executive Director, National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families): We found the statue, dusted it off, and started using it.

LOHR: Phillip Cosby with the group's Kansas City office says communities from Abilene to Overland Park have called grand juries to target outlets that sold, what he believes, were obscene materials. Seven grand juries were called in four years. And Cosby says six of those brought indictments.

Mr. COSBY: So what it is, is we the people in Kansas do enjoy a place where we can touch a lever of power to actually move prosecutors, and that's the way the law reads. Once the signatures are gathered, they have to investigate what the people are asking for.

LOHR: Learning from that model, pro-life groups began petition drives of their own, targeting both Planned Parenthood and a provider of late-term abortions in Kansas, Dr. George Tiller.

Cheryl Sullenger is with Operation Rescue.

Ms. CHERYL SULLENGER (Spokesperson, Operation Rescue): I am absolutely and 100 percent convinced we would not have an investigation without the citizens' petitions.

LOHR: Under Kansas law to petition for a grand jury, a group must collect signatures from two percent plus 100 citizens who voted in the county's last gubernatorial election. Sullenger says she collected 7,800 signatures in less than one month. The petition suggests Dr. Tiller has violated state law by performing illegal third-trimester abortions. The group claims Tiller breaks the law by broadly interpreting the provision which allows late-term abortions only if a woman's physical or mental health is in danger.

A grand jury looked into Tiller's practice in 2006 but failed to indict him. The former attorney general filed 30 charges against Tiller, but they were dismissed. Sullenger said the local D.A. refused to pursue charges, leading her group to act.

Ms. SULLENGER: We're using a legal process that has been provided to the citizens of the state of Kansas to get an investigation. This isn't harassment. This is just, let's look into this. Let's see what's really going on there. And if the laws are being violated, let's go ahead and have charges filed like we would have for anyone else who violated the law.

LOHR: Tiller has denied any wrongdoing and claims the grand jury is harassment. Julie Burkhart with the pro-choice political action committee, ProKanDo, agrees.

Ms. JULIE BURKHART (ProKanDo): This has been used as a political wedge issue far too long in this state as well as in this nation.

LOHR: Burkhart says the grand jury petition is a tool being used by a small group that she says wants to reduce access to women's health care.

Ms. BURKHART: And this is a political witch hunt. We would like for these things to stop in this state so that we can get on with the real business of the people here.

LOHR: The grand jury has 90 days to file charges, but that term can be extended. A second grand jury began meeting last month to investigate abortions performed by Planned Parenthood in Kansas.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

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