Lawsuit Challenges Alaska’s Regulation Restricting Abortions For Low Income Women

A trial got underway today in Anchorage in a lawsuit challenging the state regulation that restricts abortions for low income women.

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State Superior Court judge John Suddock will decide on Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest’s complaint against the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Brigett Amiri delivered opening statements for the plaintiffs. Amiri said the state’s law puts a burden on the fundamental human right of reproduction, and that it violates equal protection and privacy clauses of the Alaska Constitution.

“Women living in poverty overall have poorer physical and mental health, and if those women are denied access to a medically necessary abortion, because they cannot afford to pay for it, the consequences would be devastating,” Amiri said. “The state Medicaid program was designed specifically to prevent this type of suffering by ensuring access to medical care for those who can’t afford to pay out of pocket.”

State attorney Dario Borghesan told the court that a prior state supreme court case has helped the state determine where to draw the line on paying for procedures.

“Medicaid does not cover every procedure that optimizes a person’s well being. Medicaid does not cover every procedure that might improve your vision, or every surgery that helps you lose weight. A woman might be genuinely distraught because she can’t have a child, but Medicaid does not cover fertility treatments at all,” Borghesan said. “So the line that this legislation draws…that Medicaid will cover an abortion if pregnancy poses a serious risk to your health, but not an abortion solely to protect your emotional well being, is consistent with the line that it draws in other areas.”

Borghesan said the court needs to consider how its ruling applies to Medicaid administration, health care services and the need to keep costs down.

Plaintiffs attorneys plan to prove that funding restrictions are contrary to how doctors practice medicine. Under state statute, Medicaid coverage for abortion is only available in cases of extreme illness, in which the woman faces death or failure of a major bodily function. The plaintiffs called to the stand Dr. Aaron Caughey, a specialist in maternal fetal medicine. Under questioning, Dr. Caughey commented on the 23 medical conditions that are defined, by state statute, as the only reasons for a Medicaid abortion.

“Only limiting the idea of medically necessary to the things that are severely impinging on someone’s risk of either major bodily function or death seems really limiting,” Caughey said. “So the idea of waiting until someone is about to die or be injured to intervene doesn’t make any sense.”

State attorneys also examined Rebecca Poedy, chief operating officer with Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, on financial procedures related to cost reimbursement for the abortions the organization provides. Poedy testified that Planned Parenthood has difficulty in collecting payment from many of the women who receive abortions through Planned Parenthood services.

The trail is expected to continue into next week.