JUNEAU, Alaska -- An effort by an anti-abortion state senator to restrict state-funded abortions using state law, not a doctor's opinion, to define what is "medically necessary" was sharply challenged Wednesday during a legislative hearing.
Sen. John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, is the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 49 and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the measure drew support from three out-of-state experts -- two doctors and a psychologist -- handpicked by Coghill.
Sen. Bill Wielechowski of Anchorage, the only Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, aggressively confronted all three, at one point asking the psychologist whether her research linking abortion to mental problems had been "decisively debunked."
In Alaska, the fight to restrict abortion has been raging for years. Coghill said Wednesday he's long been stymied by the bipartisan Senate coalition, which conservatives succeeded in dismantling after the November election. Now Republicans rule the Senate and House and he's in charge of Judiciary.
"I wanted to get my side showing that I had thought through the health care issue," Coghill said. That's important because his bill isn't being heard by the Senate Health and Social Services Committee, Coghill said. Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka and the newly tapped health panel chairman, is generally more interested in oil taxes than social causes and said he requested it not be sent to his committee.
Coghill said he's going to allow Planned Parenthood and the ACLU to testify on Monday and will invite public testimony as well.
His measure says that only serious physical problems -- not mental health issues -- should be grounds for medically necessary state-paid abortions. A woman suffering from mental or emotional problems could still pay for her own abortion, Coghill says.
If a woman is at serious risk of death or "impairment of a major bodily function" because of her pregnancy, the abortion would be considered medically necessary under the bill. Among the qualifying conditions are: heart failure, coma, sickle cell anemia, kidney infection, diabetes with severe organ damage, eclampsia (seizures related to pregnancy), and rupture of amniotic membranes.
Coghill's bill is a result of an Alaska Supreme Court ruling in 2001 that the state had to fund "medically necessary" abortions if it funded maternity care, to avoid discriminating among pregnant women who choose different paths.
Last year in Alaska, there were 1,629 abortions, two more than the year before, though generally the number has been shrinking, according to reports compiled by the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics. Some 581 abortions in 2012 were paid for by Medicaid, a drop of 42 from the year before.
Many of the state-paid abortions likely were elective, not medically necessary, Coghill's aide, Chad Hutchison, asserted to the committee.
He based that on a 2004 study examining why women have abortions. The study, by the Guttmacher Institute, a private New York-based research and education group that supports abortion rights, found that just 4 percent of the women listed their own physical health problem as their main reason, he said.
Hutchison didn't mention that 12 percent said physical problems were among the reasons or that 13 percent listed possible health problems with the fetus as a factor.
Coghill said he crafted the measure with the help of his experts and by reading the 2001 court decision. His bill has six co-sponsors including two of his five committee members. Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage and another committee member, was silent during the hearing. When a reporter asked her view afterwards, she waved away the question and dashed off.