JUNEAU -- Lawmakers are struggling with a contentious abortion bill to limit state funding to those deemed "medically necessary," and on Tuesday a House panel stripped out a provision for expanded family planning services over objections from Democrats who say it would prevent hundreds of abortions and unwanted pregnancies.
The House Finance Committee is debating Sen. John Coghill's bill passed by the Senate last year as well as the House version sponsored by Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage. After the committee eliminated the family planning element, Senate Bill 49 and House Bill 173 are identical twins.
"It's a sad day for poor women," Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, said Tuesday, reacting to the elimination of the family planning element that she inserted last year on the Senate floor.
Both Coghill, R-Fairbanks, and LeDoux told the Finance Committee Tuesday they merely want to bring "clarity" to the question of state Medicaid payments for abortion.
They insisted their bills don't amount to a new abortion restriction but rather needed legislation to distinguish state-funded medically necessary abortions from elective procedures that women still could pay for themselves. Both would limit state payments to situations in which pregnancy put the woman's life in danger or her physical health at risk due to conditions including heart disease, diabetes with complications, and coma.
Most of those who testified Tuesday disputed that the bills wouldn't restrict abortion for poor women. Lawmakers were told to expect lawsuits, more unintended pregnancies and scary back-alley or self-abortions if the legislation passes.
Two Democrats, Les Gara and David Guttenberg, along with Republican Lindsey Holmes opposed abandoning the family planning provision. They were outnumbered by the eight who voted to take it out: Finance Committee co-chairmen Alan Austerman and Bill Stoltze as well as members Mia Costello, Bryce Edgmon, Tammie Wilson, Cathy Munoz, Steve Thompson and Mark Neuman. All are Republicans except Edgmon, a rural Democrat who is organized with the GOP majority.
Coghill said the state already pays for family planning services.
But the provision sought to create a new program providing birth control, testing for sexually transmitted diseases and other reproductive health services to single women and men who otherwise didn't qualify for Medicaid, which generally is limited to families with children, pregnant women and disabled people.
A January 2011 report by the Guttmacher Institute estimated that more than 7,000 Alaskans would qualify for the expanded program once it was fully in place. More than 1,000 unintended pregnancies would be avoided including at least 360 abortions, the report said.
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