House approves bill limiting abortion funding

Posted: Wednesday, May 15, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- The House approved a bill Tuesday that could limit state funding for abortions for poor women.

The measure tightens the definition of ''therapeutic'' abortions, which are procedures the state Medicaid program is constitutionally required to fund.

The bill, which has already passed the Senate, now goes to Gov. Tony Knowles.

Knowles' spokesman Bob King would not say whether the governor would veto the bill, although he noted the administration is on record opposing the measure.

''We've testified this is an unwarranted intrusion of the Legislature into the doctor's examining room,'' King said. ''They've tried this before, and it was struck down by the courts.''

Supporters of the bill say the current definition of medically necessary abortion is so loose the state could be fund abortions simply because women are ''stressed out'' by pregnancy.

''The people of Alaska in general choose not to pay for elective abortions, and that's what this is about,'' said Rep. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River.

Opponents of the measure say the new definition is so tight it could leave out women with serious health problems and will probably be found unconstitutional.

''What it will accomplish, I suspect, is costing the state another quarter-million dollars in legal fees,'' said Rep. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage.

Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, is pushing the bill, partly out of frustration with an Alaska Supreme Court decision.

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

Current regulations define 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.''

The definition in the bill would allow state-funded abortions:

-- for a woman with a physical health problem that is caused or aggravated by the pregnancy and that would ''seriously endanger'' the woman's health if an abortion were not performed.

-- for a woman who needs medication to treat a psychological illness, but only if that medication would be ''highly dangerous'' to the fetus and if the health of the woman would be endangered if she did not take it.

-- for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.

Opponents say the language requires doctors to certify that something ''would'' happen when they seldom can be that certain of an outcome.

''What we're doing here is we're playing doctor with this bill,'' said Rep. Andrew Halcro, R-Anchorage.

Election-year politics tinged the debate.

Rep. Lisa Murkowski, R-Anchorage, said she had been advised to vote for the issue because she will be facing Rep. Eldon Mulder, who opposes abortion, in a closed Republican primary.

She rejected that advice.

''I may have a very short-lived political future here,'' Murkowski said. ''I'm going to stand up for the constitution and I'm going to stand up for the women of Alaska and I'm going to vote no.''

Senate Bill 364 bill passed the House 23-17.

Voting against the bill were Republicans Bunde, Halcro, Murkowski, Brian Porter and Drew Scalzi and Democrats Ethan Berkowitz, Sharon Cissna, Harry Crawford, Eric Croft, John Davies, Gretchen Guess, Joe Hayes, Reggie Joule, Mary Kapsner, Beth Kerttula, Albert Kookesh and Carl Moses.

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