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Conservative Alaska Senate majority wastes no time reviving womb wars

Pat Forgey
The abortion issue has been on the back-burner in Juneau for several legislative sessions. No more. Loren Holmes illustration

Some Alaska legislators think they, not doctors, should be the ones to decide when an abortion is medically necessary. And they'll be getting support Wednesday from a panel of national medical professionals who will help decide which conditions constitute a medically necessary abortion, and which do not.

The Alaska Supreme Court decided in 2001 that the state must pay for abortions for people in the Medicaid program if the procedure is "medically necessary," but provided little guidance on how that term should be defined.

That gray area includes a debate over whether mental health issues can be considered among factors contributing to medical necessity for abortion.

Fervent abortion opponent Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, said he fears that without a definition, women may be able to get abortions that are not medically necessary under Medicaid. To prevent that possibility, Coghill has sponsored Senate Bill 49, which he said will "prevent public funds from being used to pay for elective abortions."

State data from 2011 show 632 Medicaid-funded abortions in Alaska, out of a total of 1,637.

Among the testimony expected Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee is from Priscilla K. Coleman, a professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who researches and studies the psychology of abortion.

"I can say with reasonable degree of scientific certainty that abortion is a substantial contributing factor in women's mental health issues," Coleman said in testimony provided to the committee.

Other researchers have disputed Coleman's conclusions, however, and Coleman told PBS's "Now" program that the American Psychiatric Association was refusing to acknowledge the science on the topic.

In documentation accompanying SB 49, Coghill described his bill as based on "recommendations and expert testimony from medical professionals."

Coghill chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hear the testimony on Senate Bill 49, and selected those to testify.

Womb war revival

The abortion issue has been on the back-burner in Juneau for several legislative sessions, as coalition politics prevented a number of divisive social issues from being considered. After the November elections, Coghill transformed from minority Republican to leader in the new, conservative Alaska Senate Majority.

Coghill recently amended his own bill, substituting a new version which removes a requirement that cases of rape or incest be promptly reported in order to qualify for abortion.

The Senate Judiciary Committee meets Wednesday at 1:30 p.m.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat@alaskadispatch.com