Knowles vetoes abortion funding bill

Posted: Thursday, June 06, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Gov. Tony Knowles on Wednesday vetoed a bill that would have restricted state funding for abortions for poor women.

Knowles said the bill was unconstitutional and arbitrarily limited low-income women's rights to medically necessary abortions.

''When legislators try to practice medicine, that is flat-out dangerous,'' Knowles said at a news conference.

The bill would have tightened the definition of ''therapeutic'' abortions, which the state funds for low-income women.

Under the bill, such abortions would be paid for only in limited circumstances when a woman's health would be ''seriously endangered'' by carrying the pregnancy to term.

The bill's primary backer, Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said Wednesday he did not know whether lawmakers would attempt to override the veto.

Kelly pushed the bill partly out of frustration with an Alaska Supreme Court decision last year. The court ruled that the state may not deny funding for medically advised abortions for poor women if it provides other pregnancy-related services for them.

Kelly argued the current definition of therapeutic abortion is too broad and the state could be funding abortions simply because women are ''stressed out'' by pregnancy.

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 state paid for 577 therapeutic abortions last year, including six cases of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest. Kelly said that's far more than would be expected to be medically necessary.

''When you say 'ameliorate psychological health,' you've just created a legal loophole that you can drive a truck through, and the Knowles administration has driven a truck through that,'' Kelly said.

Knowles disputed Kelly's charge that the state is, in effect, paying for elective abortions.

''That's just not backed up by the facts,'' Knowles said. ''That's just anecdotal baloney.''

The definition in Senate Bill 346 would have allowed 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 said the language would require doctors to certify that something ''would'' happen when they seldom can be that certain of an outcome. Dr. Jan Whitefield, a doctor at Alaska Women's Health Services in Anchorage, made that argument at Knowles' news conference.

''I can't use absolutes,'' he said. ''Medicine doesn't work in absolutes. Medicine works in possibilities and probabilities.''

The Legislature could attempt to override Knowles' veto when it meets in special session June 24 on other matters. However, the bill passed with less than a two-thirds majority, which is the margin needed to override a veto.

Kelly said the Legislature has reversed Knowles' vetoes in the past on abortion bills, even when less than two-thirds initially supported a bill.

Knowles said he does not believe lawmakers will override the veto, and if they did, the courts would probably declare the bill unconstitutional.

In May, when the House voted on the measure, Rep. Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, hinted that lawmakers expected a veto.

In response to an argument that the bill would cost the state money because it would be challenged in court, Kott said the bill would not cost money because the attorney general would advise a veto if it appeared to be unconstitutional.

Kott was among 23 House members voting for the bill. It passed the Senate 12-7.

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