Kansas gov.'s choice for medical board causes stir

July 7, 2011 - 5:59 PM

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Abortion-rights supporters condemned Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback's appointment of an attorney who has previously represented anti-abortion protesters to be on the state board that licenses and regulates doctors, including those who terminate pregnancies.

Attorney Richard Macias of Wichita said Thursday that while he personally opposes abortion he can be fair in analyzing issues before the State Board of Healing Arts. He said his duty as an attorney is to uphold the law.

Kansas already has drawn national attention over new health department regulations for abortion providers, telling them what drugs and equipment they must stock, requiring them to give the department access to their medical records and setting requirements for room sizes and temperatures. The rules have been blocked by a federal judge until a lawsuit from providers is resolved.

Even with such rules, the Board of Healing Arts still would regulate individual doctors, consider allegations of misconduct against them and have the power to fine them or suspend or revoke their licenses. Brownback, an anti-abortion Republican, announced the appointment this week — several weeks after Macias actually joined the medical board.

Federal court records show Macias represented anti-abortion protesters in lawsuits arising from "Summer of Mercy" protests in Wichita in 1991 and 2001. His clients included the national group involved in the protest, Operation Save America, which used to be called Operation Rescue.

"This is yet another play in a full-on war against abortion in Kansas," said Bonnie Scott Jones, an attorney for the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing abortion providers in the lawsuit against the state's regulations.

Macias said he served as a local lawyer for the group and individual protesters and that most work was handled by "attorneys out of D.C." As for the criticism of him, he said, "They don't know who I am."

"I think if people give me a chance, I think they'll see I do a pretty good job on most issues," he said.

In the past, abortion opponents have accused the Board of Healing Arts of being too lax in regulating doctors, particularly abortion providers. Anti-abortion groups were especially critical of the board when Democrat Kathleen Sebelius, an abortion-rights supporter, was governor in 2003-09.

State lawmakers adopted resolutions critical of the board in 2008 over multiple cases, leading to the resignation of its longtime executive director and legislation designed to improve the board's oversight.

"Mr. Macias is a well-qualified and very respected attorney who will continue the reforms needed at the Board of Healing Arts," said Brownback's spokeswoman, Sherriene Jones-Sontag.

The governor appoints the board's 15 members, but their four-year terms are staggered. Macias is the first board member appointed by Brownback, who took office in January.

Macias has handled adoptions for nearly 25 years and says on his website they represent three-quarters of his practice. A Republican, Macias has served as a small-claims court judge for two decades.

He also represented defendants in a 1991 lawsuit brought by two Wichita abortion clinics and the late Dr. George Tiller over protest tactics that limited or blocked access to their buildings. A federal judge ruled against the protesters, but an appeals court later overturned him.

Both of the clinics in that lawsuit have closed. Tiller was murdered in 2009 by a man professing strong anti-abortion views.

The other lawsuit involving Macias was filed in 2001 by protesters and Operation Save America after the city refused to grant a permit for two-hour parades twice a day around Tiller's clinic. A federal judge eventually ruled that their rights to free speech and due legal process had been violated.

"I've never been out to protest at a clinic," Macias said. "I do have core values, but again, I just analyze what's before us. I'm a big rules-follower."

Julie Burkhart, founder of the abortion-rights political action committee Trust Women, said the medical board could be a tool for "the anti-choice administration" to harass abortion providers. She formerly worked for Tiller.

Troy Newman, president of the group that now uses the Operation Rescue name, said abortion-rights supporters have had "cronies" in state government for a decade.

"They're going to complain about anybody unless they're part of their pro-abortion clique," Newman said.