House committee passes partial birth abortion bill

Posted: Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A House committee approved a proposal Monday that would make performing a medical procedure widely known as a "partial birth abortion" a felony in Alaska.

The House Judiciary Committee passed a bill to revise the current law so it conforms to federal standards.

A floor vote - and a spirited debate - is expected later in the legislative session.

No one spoke out against the bill during a brief public comment period.

Committee members debated an amendment that would allow termination of a pregnancy that "poses substantial risk of permanent injury to the pregnant woman's physical or mental health."

But bill proponents say a portion of the law not under revision sufficiently takes into account the mother's welfare if her life is endangered. The proposed amendment failed.

"It's obviously a hot topic," said committee member John Coghill, a North Pole Republican who co-sponsored the bill with fellow Republican Wes Keller of Wasilla. "I thought we were going to have more of a legal discussion than we did, but I expect we will have more soon."

Count on it, said Anchorage Democrat Lindsey Holmes, who proposed the amendment. The mother's risk in the current law is narrowly defined and that worries her, she said.

"I'm sure we'll be in a for a fight here," she said. "Generally, I err on the side of the woman and her doctor and not making health care a Class C felony."

To date, 31 states have enacted bans on partial birth abortions, but those laws have been blocked by courts in 17 states, according to the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion data.

Each state defines partial birth abortion differently.

Keller's bill defines partial birth abortion, in part, as: "a procedure in which a person deliberately and intentionally performs the overt act, other than completion of delivery, that kills the fetus."

Last week, the Guttmacher Institute released a report, saying the number of abortions nationwide fell to 1.2 million in 2005, a 25 percent drop from the all-time high of 1.6 million in 1990. It was the lowest level since 1974.

Statewide discussions on abortion gained some momentum in November when the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that teenage girls can get abortions without parental consent.

The ruling drew praise from Planned Parenthood as well as the ire of some lawmakers and Gov. Sarah Palin, who called the decision "outrageous."

The ruling struck down the state's Parental Consent Act passed by the Alaska Legislature in 1997. The law had required girls 16 years old and younger to get a parent's permission to receive an abortion.

When lawmakers returned to work last week, abortion promised to be on the agenda during the 90-day session.

Coghill wants to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to determine whether underage girls need parental consent to have an abortion.

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