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Senate Passes Controversial Abortion Bill

Right now, the state of Alaska is obligated to provide Medicaid funding for all “medically necessary” abortions. On Tuesday, the Senate passed a bill that would narrow that definition.

It’s the first time the Senate has voted on an abortion bill since 2006. The legislation would only allow for Medicaid payments if a woman is at serious risk of physical harm if she goes through with her pregnancy or if the woman is a victim of rape or incest. It specifically excludes mental health conditions. Supporters of the legislation have characterized that as a loophole through which women can get Medicaid coverage or elective procedures.

Anti-abortion groups have gotten behind the bill, saying that it would reduce the number of abortions in the state because low-income women are less likely to go through with the procedure if they can’t secure payment. Sen. John Coghill, a North Pole Republican, sponsored the bill, and he says that his intent was narrower than that.

“This debate is not about limiting anything,” says Coghill. “It’s really about defining who pays for what. So, they hope it limits, I tend to agree with them. But that’s not the debate.”

Opponents of the bill still say the measure chips away at reproductive rights, and that it’s unfair to poor women. Democrats in the minority also questioned its constitutionality and suggested it could open up the state to a number of legal problems. Anchorage Democrat Bill Wielechowski noted that crime victims couldn’t use the vagueness of a mental health exception to get Medicaid to cover an abortion.

“We’re statutorily forcing women to disclose rape and incest and what that does is — we heard about this in Senate judiciary [committee] — it puts physicians in an extremely difficult position
and it puts potentially the State of Alaska in an extremely difficult position.”

One amendment was made to the bill. Sen. Berta Gardner, an Anchorage Democrat, offered a change that would expand the state’s Medicaid program to offer more family planning and women’s health services, with the idea being to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies. The

The bill sponsor removed his objection after Lesil McGuire and Anna Fairclough, two moderate Republican women from Anchorage, voiced their support for the change. McGuire described it as a “pro-life” and “pro-women” compromise.

“It is imperative that the members of this body send a message to those with pregnancies about the value about the unborn, but also their life.”

The bill passed 14 to 6, mostly on caucus lines. Sitka Republican Bert Stedman and Juneau Democrat Dennis Egan both broke with the majority to oppose against the bill, while Bethel Democrat Lyman Hoffman voted for it.

Companion bill is currently moving through the House, with just one committee left to review it.

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