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Abortion funding bill heads to floor

Posted: February 28, 2014 - 12:10am

The Alaska House finance committee narrowly advanced an abortion-funding bill Thursday, setting up a battle on the House floor.

If a majority of Representatives approve the measure, it would bar the state from spending public dollars on any abortion that is not medically necessary or the result of rape or incest.

“Previously Medicaid has been paying for abortions that are not medically necessary, and that’s not appropriate,” said Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage.

The legislation passed the committee on a 6-5 margin with two Republicans joining the committee’s three Democrats in opposition. Even with the slim margin in committee, supporters and opponents expect it will pass a floor vote.

“It’s very rare that if a bill reaches the floor it doesn’t pass,” said Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, one of the bill’s opponents in committee.

The bill, SB49, has been presented to committees by LeDoux and Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, and aims to legally define “medically necessary” in reference to Medicaid-funded abortions.

“Federal law very clearly limits the ability to get public funding for abortions,” said Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau. “It’s clear to me that more abortions are happening than are medically necessary.”

The bill includes a list of 21 specific physical dangers (in addition to the possibility of death or another danger that places the mother’s health in jeopardy) that would qualify an abortion as “medically necessary.”

Critics of the bill have contested the list, saying that a number of dangers or conditions, including diagnosed mental health disorders, are not included.

“This is me kind of trying to tell a doctor what is and what isn’t medically necessary,” said Rep. Lindsey Holmes, R-Anchorage, “I’m uncomfortable with telling the doctor that this is the right list.”

The last item on the list of acceptable applications of the “medically necessary” label includes enough discretion to cover what the list may not have explicitly described, Coghill said.

“Under the general language, the doctor is given some latitude,” the Senate majority leader said. “If he feels there is physical danger to the mother, he or she is able to at that point move forward.

“All they have to do is demonstrate they felt there was a physical danger,” he added.

The Senate approved the bill by a 14-6 vote last year, but a section of the approved bill was removed on the House side this year — a section opponents say is critical.

“I suspect if it reaches the floor it will pass,” Gara said. “The question is if we can get our family planning amendment in there that would cut the number of abortions.”

The family planning amendment, removed by the House, offers Medicaid coverage of contraception and family planning services to women who are not pregnant and don’t have children, Gara said.

“For a woman who is a waitress who isn’t covered by Denali Kid Care and below poverty level working as hard as she can — it takes away the right to chose for that woman or she goes to a place that’s unsafe,” he said.

For LeDoux, it’s a matter of balancing Alaskans’ rights when an abortion is not medically necessary, but rather elective.

“They still have a right to chose, but that doesn’t mean they have a right for somebody else to have to pay for their choice,” LeDoux said.

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