Vetoed abortion bill brought back to life in House, Senate

Posted: Tuesday, May 06, 2003

House Majority Leader John Coghill has introduced a bill that would restrict the use of state funding to pay for abortions for poor women.

The bill is identical to one passed by the Legislature last year and vetoed by former Gov. Tony Knowles.

The bill would tighten language used by the state to define "medically necessary" abortions, which Alaska is required to pay for out of federal Medicaid funds.

Sen. Fred Dyson, an Anchorage Republican, introduced an identical bill in the Senate.

"I think we need to continually assert that abortions funded for any other reason than the life of the mother should not be paid for by Medicaid," said Coghill, a North Pole Republican.

State regulations allow Medicaid-eligible therapeutic abortions to "prevent the death or disability of the woman, or to ameliorate a condition harmful to the woman's physical or psychological health." That definition drew objections last year from then-Fairbanks Sen. Pete Kelly, the prime backer of legislation to tighten the definition.

Kelly argued the "psychological health" wording creates a loophole that allows the state to fund elective abortions.

Under his proposal, mirrored by the Coghill and Dyson bills, abortions would be funded by Medicaid only in the cases of rape and incest, if the pregnancy would seriously endanger the mother's health or if the mother was taking a psychological medication that could harm the fetus.

Opponents of the bill say state-funded abortions should be decided by the woman and licensed physicians best-suited to determine whether the procedure is medically necessary. Knowles echoed such sentiment when he vetoed Kelly's bill.

Knowles also said the bill was unconstitutional and would arbitrarily limit the rights of low-income women to medically necessary procedures.

Coghill said a major reason he reintroduced the bill is to see where Knowles' successor, Gov. Frank Murkowski, stands on the issue. While Coghill wants to see the bill pass, he also said he has questions about Murkowski's stance and would like to use the bill to spur discussion with the administration.

"My concern is that the strictest language possible on abortion is put forward," Coghill told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "I have not been convinced that this administration has that same view."

Coghill noted the governor failed to include a clause in his budget proposal specifying that the state may not pay for any abortions not mandated by federal rules. Such a clause was inserted in budget legislation last year by the Legislature. Coghill said the House did so again this year after it was not included in the governor's budget.

Murkowski spokesman John Manly said the governor has not looked closely at the bill.

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