Abortion bill loses traction in Legislature's final weekend

Richard Mauer

JUNEAU -- The main abortion-restricting bill this session is in trouble over a provision added in the Senate to increase funding for family planning and health services for low-income women.

A leading advocate for the original version of Senate Bill 49, Jim Minnery of Alaska Family Action, said he would rather see the bill die in the House than pass with the other provisions. In an interview a Capitol hallway, where he was tracking the legislation, he described the increase in health-care services as a "boondoggle" that wouldn't slow unwanted pregnancies.

The bill was held in the House Finance Committee Saturday morning when committee co-chairman Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, sought to bring back the original Senate bill without the parts Minnery found objectionable. But with the committee due to recess momentarily, Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, said there wasn't time to discuss the implications of switching versions.

"This is a hugely controversial issue," Edgmon said.

The bill remained in limbo through the day as the House enveloped itself in the oil-tax debate. With the Legislature due to adjourn Sunday, time was running out for non-tax and non-budget matters.

"The chances of it getting on the floor are somewhere between negative one and zero," Stoltze said Saturday evening during a break in the oil-tax debate. As he scribbled notes in a stack of budget papers in the finance committee hearing room, he said he regretted those odds because he wanted to see a bill pass that restricted abortions.

The original bill was proposed by Sen. John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, one of the Legislature's leading social conservatives. The bill affects state-funded "medically necessary" abortions by defining the term as a situation in which the life or physical well-being of the woman would be at risk by the pregnancy. Currently, what is "medically necessary" is up to the judgment of a doctor.

The bill would continue to authorize the use of state funds for abortions for low-income women when the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.

Coghill's bill passed the Senate Tuesday, but not before it was amended to require the state to add family planning, health screening and other services for Medicaid-eligible women.

That amendment was proposed by Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, to "take aim at the root of the problem, which is how do we really reduce the number of abortions," she said on the Senate floor.

"Amendment No. 1 directs the department of Health and Social Services to implement a women's health program to reduce the incidents of unwanted pregnancy and abortion," she told the Senate.

While some women's health services were already covered by the state, the program she proposed was more comprehensive. She said it would cost Alaska about $1.4 million over two years, 10 percent of the actual cost. The federal government pays 90 percent, she said. The state would ultimately save money through reduced pregnancies, she said.

Two of the Senate's three other women, Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, and Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River, spoke in favor of the amendment.

"I think this is exactly the right amendment for the right bill," McGuire said. "It allays some of the criticisms about the bill and it strikes the balance that many of the people in this body are trying to reach -- which is to say, that we value life. If that's the case, we ought to take the risks to reach out to these kinds of innovative programs that provide for health and support for the families."

Coghill at first objected to the amendment. He said he agreed that the state had a need for such programs, but Senate Bill 49 was the wrong vehicle. But after Gardner, McGuire and Fairclough spoke, he lifted his objection and the amendment was approved without a vote.

"Coghill felt intimidated on the floor," Minnery said Saturday. "He felt he had no choice."

In the House Finance Committee Saturday, Coghill said he supported going back to the original bill.

In the interview, Minnery said Alaska "is awash in family planning" already. "We don't want Planned Parenthood to get any money from the state."

He acknowledged the bill doesn't direct the state to use clinics run by Planned Parenthood, which also provides abortions and is an advocate for abortion rights, but added, "that's the biggest family planning group in the state."

Gardner said Saturday it's possible that Planned Parenthood might provide some of the health services. The federal program that would pay 90 percent of the cost doesn't allow the money to be spent for abortions, she said.

The program likely will reduce the need for abortions, she said.

"If you really want to reduce abortions, what you need to do is get to the root of the problem -- unintended and unwanted pregnancies," Gardner said. "We need to increase the access of low-income families, women in particular, to women's health care."


Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345.



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