Senate approves restrictions on abortion funding

Posted: Wednesday, May 08, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- The Republican-controlled Senate passed a measure on Tuesday that would place greater restrictions on state-funded abortions.

The measure seeks to restrict Medicaid funding for so-called ''therapeutic abortions,'' or those that relate to the mother's psychological health.

Sen. Pete Kelly, a staunch pro-life advocate, said it takes aim at state regulations that he contends currently allow abortions on demand.

''I think whether you are pro-choice or pro-life ... we should not be doing elective abortions,'' Kelly said.

State officials deny that indigent women can receive funding for abortions if they decide to not have a baby and a lawmaker voting against it said many doctors oppose the measure.

Current regulations define Medicaid-eligible therapeutic abortions as those necessary ''to prevent the death or disability of the woman, or to ameliorate a condition harmful to the woman's physical or psychological health.''

Under the bill, such abortions could be performed only if medication required to maintain the mother's health poses a risk to the fetus.

Kelly argued that the current regulations are so loosely drawn that a poor woman could get an abortion funded by Medicaid if she was ''stressed out.''

The state paid for 577 abortions in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2001, of which six were cases of rape or incest, according to information from the state Department of Health and Human Services.

But an official with the Alaska Civil Liberties Union, which has sued to derail several conservative bills attacking past abortion issues, disputed Kelly's claim that Medicaid is paying for elective abortions.

''They have not one shred of evidence to back that up,'' said Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the AkCLU. ''Taxpayer dollars do not fund elective procedures, period.''

Rudinger said the bill also threatens medically necessary abortions since it requires a greater degree of certainty from a doctor before such a procedure would be covered.

In some cases, doctors can only be marginally sure that carrying a fetus to term will harm the mother's health or the health of the baby, Rudinger said.

The bill passed the Senate 12-7 with three Republicans voting against the measure. Sens. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, Dave Donley, R-Anchorage, and Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks voted against the measure.

Democrats voting against the measure included Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, Sen. Bettye Davis, of Anchorage, Sen. Lyman Hoffman, of Bethel, and Sen. Kim Elton, of Juneau.

''It seems to me we are substituting political judgment for medical judgment,'' Elton said.

The state Department of Health and Human Services is opposed to the measure because it degrades the ability of a doctor to determine when such a procedure is necessary.

The bill is in response to some lawmakers' frustration with a state Supreme Court decision requiring the state's Medicaid program to pay for some medically advised abortions for poor women.

The court ruled last year that the state may not deny funding for medically advised abortions if it provides other pregnancy-related services for poor women.

A similar bill is in the House Judiciary Committee. Committee Chairman Rep. Norm Rokeberg, R-Anchorage, said he will schedule a hearing for the Senate measure soon if it is assigned to his committee.

Rudinger said she is doubtful that the measure will pass the Legislature this session and if it does, the Senate does not have enough votes to override a gubernatorial veto.

A spokesman for Gov. Tony Knowles could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday.

The measure could come to the Senate again on Wednesday before being transmitted to the House for consideration.

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-- The House measure is House Bill 522.

-- The Senate measure is Senate Bill 364.



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