Senate approves measure tightening rules on abortion

Posted: Tuesday, May 07, 2002

The GOP-controlled Senate is poised to pass a bill that tightens rules for abortions.

Senate Bill 364 was expected to go to the floor for a vote today after Democrats were able to stall a vote Monday.

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

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

The Senate measure seeks to restrict Medicaid funding for so-called "therapeutic abortions," or those that relate to the mother's psychological health. Under the bill, such abortions could be performed if medication required to maintain the mother's health pose a risk to the fetus.

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."

Sen. Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, has said state regulations interpret medical necessity too loosely and allow indigent women to receive elective abortions. Kelly said through a sponsor statement the bill takes aim at "abortions on demand."

A similar measure, House Bill 522, is before the House Judiciary Committee.

The bills are opposed by the state Department of Health and Social Services, which says doctors should decide when abortions for therapeutic reasons are necessary.

"The problem of course is to what extent does the Legislature want to micromanage the practice of medicine," said deputy director Elmer Lindstrom.

Lindstrom denied state-funded abortions are performed as an elective matter by doctors. The state paid for 571 therapeutic abortions in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2001 and six abortions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, Lindstrom said.

Kelly has tried for several years to limit state funding of abortions and has been thwarted by court decisions.

Last year he at one point added language to the budget that would have killed the entire Health and Social Services Department budget if a judge forced the state to spend money on abortions. The language was later amended out of the budget.

If the current measure is approved by the Legislature, it likely will be challenged in court, Lindstrom said. "And I have no reason to believe that challenge would not play out in the way the recent court cases played out."

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