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Gov. Tony Knowles vetoed a bill today that would have redefined "medically necessary" abortions under the Medicaid program.
Knowles and Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, who is a Democratic candidate for governor, said that the bill passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature last month is an unconstitutional encroachment on the right to privacy of poor women.
"When legislators try and practice medicine, that is flat-out dangerous," Knowles said at a late morning news conference. "In fact, doctors have already said that this bill sets out unclear and unworkable standards that would not otherwise be used. ... I am vetoing this bill today and saying to those who would intrude in the most private sphere of a woman's life, 'Keep out.' "
Ulmer said the bill "raises some very serious equal protection problems" by creating two classes of Medicaid-eligible women those who have doctors willing to certify them for medically necessary abortions based upon "confusing, non-medical" language drafted by legislators, and those who don't.
"Once again, the Alaska Legislature is playing doctor and claiming that their moral superior position is somehow more important than the practice of medicine and more important than the right to privacy under Alaska's constitution," she said.
The bill, sponsored by Fairbanks Republican Sen. Pete Kelly, is aimed at preventing government financing of "elective" abortions.
Kelly has contended that the nearly 600 abortions performed a year under the Medicaid program in Alaska can't all be for health reasons. Medicaid funding was authorized for just six abortions involving rape or incest in the year ending June 30, 2001.
The bill would limit the use of psychological health as a basis for an approved abortion, disqualifying women who merely are "stressed out" by being pregnant, he said. It says abortions are Medicaid-eligible if a woman has "a serious adverse physical condition" that would "seriously endanger" her health if the pregnancy continues.
"The governor and Planned Parenthood and pro-choice advocates they want unrestricted abortions paid for with the people's money," Kelly said, expressing no surprise at the veto.
Legislators could try to override the veto at the special session Knowles has called for June 24.
"They certainly can use the opportunity if they have the votes," the governor said.
However, the 23-17 margin in the House and the 12-7 margin in the Senate on passage of the bill last month are short of the two-thirds required to enact the bill into law over the veto.
"I'll have to figure that one out," Kelly said. "It's happened before" that extra votes have been picked up on an override motion, he said.
A Supreme Court ruling last year struck down a 1998 law intended to restrict Medicaid funding for abortions to cases of rape or incest, or when the mother's physical health is at stake. The court said that lawmakers can't choose among pregnancy-related services that it will provide to women in the program.
The recent bill is aimed at what pro-life legislators say is a loophole in the definition of "therapeutic" abortions.
Bill McAllister can be reached at email@example.com.