JUNEAU -- Critics of a bill banning partial-birth abortion say the real intent is to ban abortion altogether. It's a claim sponsors of the measure deny.
In a House debate on Tuesday, Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, said his bill is specific to the rare medical procedure that is used to terminate late-term pregnancies.
Alaska lawmakers passed a ban on partial-birth abortion in 1997 but state courts overturned it as unconstitutional. Keller said he aims to restore the ban by modeling the language on a federal law passed by Congress and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.
"That change will make our statute enforceable again," Keller said.
But critics in Alaska, like the dissenting justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, describe the ban as an effort to chip away at abortion rights.
Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said the new language is vague enough to encompass all first- and second-trimester abortions. And she doubts it would survive another legal challenge, given the state's strict constitutional right to privacy.
A legal opinion from the Legislature's own counsel agrees. Attorney Jean Mischel wrote that nothing in House Bill 301, or in current law, "limits the prohibition on partial-birth abortions to late-term abortions."
Kerttula said the bill also infringes on a woman's right to make her own decisions regarding health care.
"Once you go down the road to allowing the politicians, and, yeah, the lawyers, set these rights, you are down the wrong path," Kerttula said.
The bill drew impassioned debate from both sides.
Co-sponsor Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, said while he opposes Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made abortion legal, he understands that not everyone agrees with his belief that human life begins at conception. But, he said, "civilized people" should draw the line at partial-birth abortion.
"This bill is not about Roe v. Wade. It's about a procedure, and the procedure is to kill a human baby as it's coming out the birth canal. It's not partial-birth abortion, it's partial-birth infanticide," said Lynn.
Rep. Sharon Cissna, D-Anchorage, said the bill was an affront to women faced with difficult medical decisions. She said it implies they will not act honorably.
"Bills of this kind that suggest what they suggest are a personal assault to me and to those women that I have known. This legislation is to me an assault," Cissna said.
An amendment to include an exception when the mother's physical health is at risk failed.
Keller said such a situation was not likely to occur and the amendment would only create a loophole.
In the legislative counsel's opinion, Mischel wrote that the law provides for a narrow life-saving exception but not a health exception. "Faced with compelling and conclusive facts," Mischel said a court could invalidate the bill on health grounds.
Efforts to amend the bill to add language that would limit the bill to late-term abortions also failed.
Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, said lawmakers would better use their time working on the problems that face "born children" like suicide and fetal alcohol syndrome. But she didn't expect the debate would change anyone's minds.
"We'll never come to agreement on it. Nobody expects we will. It's like touching a tooth with a toothache and every once in a while we throw ourselves against it," she said.
To date, 31 states have enacted bans on partial-birth abortions, but those laws have been blocked in the courts in 17 states, according to the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion data.
Each state defines partial-birth abortion differently.
The bill passed 21-15. It goes next to the Senate after possible reconsideration in the House.