Alaska citizens already have too little access to safe, legal abortion because of the state’s massive size, lack of clinics, and isolated location. With a mere eight clinics in a state that is nearly one-third the size of the continental United States, obtaining an abortion in Alaska is often difficult and expensive for anyone, but for low-income residents it can be nearly impossible. Now, the state legislature could make these problems even worse. Late Tuesday, the state senate voted 14-6 in favor of legislation that would severely restrict the circumstances under which someone can use Medicaid insurance to pay for an abortion. The bill now heads to the state house.
SB 49 gives a list of criteria under which a pregnant person can have Medicaid pay for an abortion under a health exception. The list of “serious health” allowances includes ectopic pregnancy, pre-eclampsia, pulmonary hypertension, and preterm labor (although in that case the pregnant person must wait until she is at least six centimeters dilated). Of course the criteria does not include any mental or emotional health issues, which can also result from pregnancy.
Still, believe it or not, it could be worse. The original version of the bill would have only allowed Medicaid coverage for abortions as a result of rape if the assault was reported “promptly.” The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. John Coghill (R-North Pole), never defined what “promptly” meant, but a similar Medicaid abortion restriction proposed in Minnesota this year defined that window as 48 hours.
“With only six days left in session, the legislature should be focusing on the critical issues facing Alaskans, such as energy and the economy,” Treasure Mackley, political and organizing director at Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest, said in a statement. “Instead, the legislature has wasted countless hours and state resources on no fewer than ten public hearings on an unconstitutional and unnecessary bill that seeks to put politicians, not doctors, in charge of women’s private medical decisions. The fact is the state of Alaska implemented new regulations that just went into effect in January. Clearly, the supporters of Senate Bill 49 are more interested in infringing on the freedom and privacy of Alaskan women than in doing the work that Alaskans sent them to Juneau to do.”
There’s no doubt that the new regulations would be unconstitutional. In fact, the state Supreme Court told the Department of Health as much last year when the department tried to enact new limited criteria for abortion payments via reimbursement forms. The department dropped the plan once the court weighed in.
Still, this seems to be a year for state legislatures proposing unconstitutional bills restricting abortion rights. As such, Alaska’s bill falls right in line.