ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A Superior Court judge on Thursday told the state to start paying for abortions for poor women within 90 days.
The state stopped paying for the procedure after the Legislature cut off funding by ending a medical program that paid for them and instituted another program that barred most abortions.
Judge Sen Tan ruled more than a year ago that the policy is unconstitutional because it discriminates against pregnant women who choose not to give birth. That ruling came in a lawsuit brought by Planned Parenthood and two doctors.
Tan agreed that the Legislature may choose to fund whatever programs it wants. But he ruled that if it opts to provide medical care for pregnant poor women, then it can't favor women who decide to deliver over those who seek a medically recommended abortion.
Tan's ruled in March 1999 that such a policy amounts to interference with a poor woman's right to make her own reproductive choices.
He relied on the privacy clause in the state constitution and a 1997 Alaska Supreme Court decision concerning Valley Hospital in Palmer. In that case, the state's highest court ruled that the right to an abortion was a fundamental right protected by the Alaska Constitution, and that publicly funded hospitals couldn't deny access to abortions.
Lawyers for the state had asked the judge not to order the payments until they appealed an earlier ruling.
On Thursday, he gave the state 90 days to pay 17 months worth of outstanding claims. He also ordered the state to send letters to clinics and doctors so they can start submitting claims.
The number of claims could be substantial. The state paid for 843 abortions in the 1997 fiscal year, before the Legislature's action effectively barring abortion payments except in cases where pregnancies result from incest or rape, or where an abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother.
In the first nine months of the 2000 fiscal year, the state paid for eight abortions, according to the state Department of Health and Social Services.
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