updated 4/23/2009 8:00:59 PM ET 2009-04-24T00:00:59

Questioning the bill's constitutionality and impact on doctors, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius vetoed a measure Thursday that would have rewritten Kansas' restrictions on late-term abortions.

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Anti-abortion groups backed the bill and were watching Sebelius' action closely as she awaits U.S. Senate confirmation as federal health and human services secretary. Abortion opponents have been the most vocal critics of her appointment by President Barack Obama.

The bill would have required physicians to report additional information to the state about the late-term abortions they perform, and would have allowed more county prosecutors to pursue criminal charges over potentially illegal late-term procedures.

Doctors could have faced lawsuits
Also, doctors could have faced lawsuits if their patients later believed a late-term abortion violated the law. A woman's husband or a girl's parent or guardian also could have filed a lawsuit.

In a veto message to legislators, Sebelius argued that doctors could have faced criminal prosecution even if they tried to comply with the law. She said that would "lead to the intimidation of health care providers and reduce access to comprehensive health care for women, even when it is necessary to preserve their lives and health."

Anti-abortion legislators in Kansas could attempt to override the veto, though the bill was approved with less support than it would need for an override. The Legislature returns April 29 from its annual spring break.

Sebelius' veto came as anti-abortion and other conservative groups have stepped up their pressure on senators to reject her nomination.

"With her nomination literally hanging out there to be resolved, I'm just shocked that she would be so blatant in the face of Americans and senators who've already expressed reservations," Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said in an interview.

Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, an anti-abortion Republican, continued to face strong pressure to back away from a previous endorsement of Sebelius.

"I'm disappointed. I'm not surprised. I would have signed that bill," Brownback said in a statement. Spokesman Brian Hart declined to comment on whether the veto would cause Brownback to rethink his position.

'Significant questions' remain
Before the veto, Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, issued a statement saying "significant questions" remained about Sebelius' stance on late-term abortions.

"The Senate should not vote, nor should Gov. Sebelius be confirmed, until these questions are answered fully and completely," Steele said.

Both the White House and Sebelius spokeswoman Beth Martino declined to respond to Steele's comments.

Peter Brownlie, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, said in a statement that Sebelius "once again showed leadership in representing the great majority of Kansans who support reasonable restrictions while assuring access to health care."

In her veto message, Sebelius said she has worked as governor to reduce unwanted pregnancies and that abortions in Kansas have declined more than 10 percent since she took office in 2003 — a point that nettles abortion opponents, who say she deserves no credit for the drop.

She said the bill would not have reduced abortions and probably would have been struck down in federal court.

Similar bill vetoed last year
Supporters argued that the bill didn't change state policies on late-term abortions so much as it strengthened their enforcement. Critics said the real goal was to restrict access to abortions.

Sebelius vetoed a bill with similar provisions last year, but there are key differences with this year's measure. The 2008 bill would have allowed lawsuits to block late-term abortions beforehand.

The bill would have allowed prosecutors to file charges alleging an illegal late-term abortion from any county where an act related to the abortion — including conception — occurred. Currently, only the attorney general or prosecutors in counties where abortions are performed can file charges.

Kansas law says late-term abortions can be performed on viable fetuses after the 21st week of pregnancy only if a woman or girl faces death or "substantial and irreversible" harm to a major bodily function, a provision that has been interpreted to include her mental health. Doctors must file a report on each late-term abortion and must obtain a second opinion from an independent physician before performing the procedure.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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