Abortion bill passed

Legislature would tighten Medicaid definitions

Posted: Tuesday, May 14, 2002

The Legislature has approved a bill restricting Medicaid-funded abortions by redefining "medical necessity."

The House voted for the bill 23-17, with five Republicans joining all 12 minority Democrats in voting no.

Rep. Con Bunde, an Anchorage Republican, said the bill, aimed at eliminating public funds for elective abortions, probably would make no difference "as long as Roe v. Wade is the law of the land."

"What it will accomplish, I suspect, is costing the state another quarter of a million dollars or so in legal fees," Bunde said. "The ultimate frustration about this subject is, unlike a lot of what we do in the Legislature, there is no middle ground. There are no compromises that will satisfy people from either side of this argument."

"The law we're about to pass is unconstitutional," said Rep. Andrew Halcro, an Anchorage Republican who also has characterized the legislation as "a witch hunt."

Rep. Fred Dyson, an Eagle River Republican, said that the issue is choice, although not the way Halcro says.

"The people of Alaska in general choose not to pay for elective abortions, and that is what this is about," Dyson said.

Medicaid abortions ranged from 500 to 900 a year before a 1998 law briefly restricted funds to cases of rape or incest or to protect the mother's physical health, Dyson. That year, they dropped to about 18, he said.

"I think we'll all be judged some day on the choices we make," said House Majority Leader Jeannette James, a North Pole Republican.

"I may have a very short-lived political future here," said Rep. Lisa Murkowski, who faces fellow Anchorage lawmaker Eldon Mulder in a Republican primary election in August. "But you know, I've got great kids, and a great husband, and I'm going to have a good heart, and I'm going to stand up for the constitution, and I'm going to stand up for the women of the state of Alaska, and I'm going to vote no."

Representatives on Monday narrowly defeated an amendment that would have eliminated the new definitions, which state the physical or psychological criteria for declaring an abortion medically necessary.

Halcro and six other Republicans, including Bill Hudson of Juneau, joined all 12 members of the Democratic minority in voting to eliminate the new definitions. That failed on a vote of 21-19.

The bill was approved by the House just before 8 p.m. Tuesday, within a few hours of the scheduled adjournment of the regular legislative session. The Senate already had approved the bill, which is intended to get around an Alaska Supreme Court ruling last year. The court ruled that the Legislature cannot discriminate among pregnancy-related services.

House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz said that he was surprised by the bill's timing, "just from a caucus management standpoint."

"I wouldn't put a divisive issue out there the last day when I need to maintain caucus discipline," said Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat.

Under the bill, a woman with a "psychological illness" would be eligible for a Medicaid-funded abortion only if medication for that illness would be "highly dangerous to the fetus" and would endanger the woman's health if she didn't take it.

The bill also establishes that a woman is Medicaid-eligible for an abortion if she has "a serious adverse physical condition" that would "seriously endanger" her health if the pregnancy continues.

Pro-choice Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles rarely issues explicit veto threats before bills come to his desk.

But spokesman Bob King didn't leave much room for doubt Tuesday morning.

"This is yet another attempt of the Legislature to inject themselves into the examining room," King said. "It's wrong. We've opposed this steadfastly."

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.

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