Compass: Alaska lawmakers should stay out of the way of women and their doctors

As the legislative session in Juneau has come to an end, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on the choices made by our elected officials so far in 2014. In particular, I'm referring to the tendency of some politicians to pretend to be doctors.

As a physician (formerly OBGYN and now child psychiatrist), I have some opinions on this matter.

Each week it seems like someone drew national attention to Alaska but not in a positive way. Sen. Fred Dyson advised low-income women to save money for birth control by not buying lattes. Sen. Pete Kelly said that birth control was for people who don't act responsibly -- and that instead of expanding access, we should put pregnancy tests in bar bathrooms. Finally, Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux claimed that birth control access here is so advanced already that we can't do anything more "other than putting contraceptives in the drinking water."

In addition, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York -- who visited Anchorage in March -- said recently that women don't need insurance coverage for birth control because they can buy it at "any shop on the street," including convenience stores like 7-11.

There's no real sense in parsing these statements and criticizing them point by point -- all are demeaning and insulting. They are disconnected from the realities facing women in Alaska and across the country. What they have in common, though, is a desire by some politicians (or some religious leaders) to come between women and their doctors, preventing women from making the medical decisions that are best for them and their families.

It is an egregious invasion of privacy.

The cacophony of ill-advised comments culminated with Gov. Sean Parnell signing into law Senate Bill 49, a bill designed to block abortion access for low-income women. SB 49 establishes a list of criteria that would make an abortion "medically necessary." Throughout the process, opponents of this bill have been asked what they would add or remove from the list.

The answer? It doesn't matter what's on the list, because the list shouldn't exist at all. Women and physicians need the freedom to make decisions without interference from legislators and bureaucrats. These people aren't doctors. They are politicians and government officials.

Supporters of SB 49 claim that they're doing it to save the state money, and I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt but they have made that difficult. During the process to consider this bill, politicians refused to keep an amendment establishing a Medicaid Women's Health Program in Alaska. A Medicaid Women's Health Program would provide critical family planning funding for low-income women, and it's paid almost entirely by the federal government. In fact, it would save the state of Alaska nearly $9 million a year in associated costs for unintended pregnancies. By implementing this program, the state would not only be supporting women, they'd be saving money.

SB 49 is likely to be challenged in court, and it may very well lose. I'm not a lawyer, so I won't make any predictions, but it is well-known that the state Supreme Court has ruled that Alaska must give women's full range of pregnancy decisions equal protection under the law.

I look forward to a future when politicians aren't trying to do physicians' jobs and when we can have a discussion about these subjects without making offensive statements with no factual basis. Most of all, I look forward to a time when the decision-making of women in their personal health care is respected by all. The solution isn't inappropriate comments about lattes and bar bathroom pregnancy tests; rather, it is more education and greater respect for individual rights.

Dr. Kerry J. Ozer is a former OB/GYN and current child psychiatrist.