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Senate Dems slam abortion bill as 'offensive'

Coghill: Intent to match federal law, answer court

Posted: February 13, 2013 - 6:27pm  |  Updated: February 14, 2013 - 1:16am

Senate Democrats Wednesday excoriated a bill by Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, that seeks to define a “medically necessary” abortion and restrict state funding for the controversial procedure.

Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, called a provision in Senate Bill 49, which was introduced on Monday, “frankly nothing less than offensive” for requiring rape and incest victims to report the crime “promptly” to police or public health officials in order to receive funding from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services for an abortion.

“This is a state that has the worst sex abuse and sex assault rates in the nation,” French said during a Senate minority caucus press conference Wednesday morning. “Many, many victims do not report for very obvious reasons. It’s an extremely difficult crime to report. It’s an extremely difficult crime to come forward with. And I don’t see how you can possibly ask to tie that reporting requirement to the fact that a rape or act of incest has happened.”

Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, concurred.

“There are many young girls who are sexually abused, who are raped, who don’t even report to their mothers,” said Gardner. “How on earth can we expect them to report to law enforcement?”

Matt Johnson, executive director of Alaska Right to Life, called French’s characterization of the bill’s “promptly report” provision “a little over the top.”

“I’m not sure what Sen. French is trying to accomplish, but it seems like if you’re really trying to protect women from men who are predators, those men need to be outed,” said Johnson, whose organization is based in Anchorage. “If you want the state to pay for (abortion), you know, I think the state has an interest in catching predators like this, and the state has an interest in securing its citizens and protecting them against those kind of people.”

Coghill’s argument was similar.

“Why wouldn’t somebody (promptly report rape or incest)?” Coghill asked rhetorically. He added, “If there’s a safety question, that will be no doubt taken into consideration. This is not the only law in the law books on people’s protection.”

Coghill said the language of the bill is “mirroring” the federal Hyde Amendment, which restricts Medicaid funding for abortions except when pregnancy is caused by rape or incest or when the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother.

However, the Hyde Amendment does not contain language requiring that rape or incest be “promptly reported” in order for a resulting pregnancy to be aborted with Medicaid support.

Treasure Mackley, political and organizing director for Seattle-based Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest, who was in Anchorage Wednesday, said the “promptly report” provision “really does put women’s health at risk.”

“I think the concern here is that politicians should not be in the business of defining what is medically necessary,” Mackley said. “That should be left to women and their doctors.”

Coghill said S.B. 49 is a response to the Alaska Supreme Court’s ruling in DHSS v. Planned Parenthood, a 2001 case in which the court concluded that the state cannot exclude abortion from the “medically necessary” health care it is required to fund under the state Medicaid program.

In her written opinion, Chief Justice Dana Fabe named several medical conditions that could be complicated by pregnancy, including diabetes, sickle cell anemia and epilepsy. Those are included in a list within S.B. 49 of conditions that “‘serious risk to the life or physical health’ includes, but is not limited to.”

French objected to that list.

“I think it’s very hard to make a laundry list of medical conditions that may cause a doctor to recommend an abortion for his patient,” said French. “It’s really inserting the state into a place where only a doctor and a patient should be.”

But Coghill said that his bill is just codifying the examples in the Supreme Court decision.

“We took those and we added a couple that had been found in other court cases,” Coghill said. “I think there are only three or four (others).”

Something else about S.B. 49 besides its language attracted the attention of Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage.

“Did you notice there was no Health and Social Services Committee referral on the legislation?” Ellis asked during the press conference. “It goes to the sponsor’s committee of Senate Judiciary, but not to the Health Committee. A bill that in its title says … the phraseology of ‘medically necessary’ was not referred to this majority by the Health Committee. It speaks volumes.”

Coghill is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“We think that body of medical necessity really has already been debated,” said Coghill Wednesday afternoon. “Now it’s a matter of answering the Supreme Court at their level. So I think it’s really a legal question at that point.”

As to whether S.B. 49 is a health or social services matter, Johnson said, “I’m not saying it’s not, but I think it’s primarily an issue that has to do with state finances and with the law. So it is appropriate for it to go to Judiciary.”

The bill has also been referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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