JUNEAU — A bill that would decide what makes an abortion medically necessary got its first hearing Wednesday, getting the stamp of approval from a developmental psychologist and two doctors with histories of opposing abortion rights.
Senate Bill 49 is authored by Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, and was heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Coghill is chairman. The hearing included the invited testimony of three doctors who helped Coghill craft the legislation.
The legislation includes what North Carolina Dr. John Thorp, an obstetrician, called a “comprehensive” list of medical cases where a pregnancy would put a woman’s life at risk. It leaves out any mention of mental health issues.
That absence was backed up by Priscilla K. Coleman, a professor of human development and family studies at Bowling Green State University. Coleman has released several research papers linking abortion to increased rates of mental illness.
“I have to say with a reasonable degree of scientific and medical certainty that abortion is a substantial contributing factor in women’s mental health problems,” she said. “I am of the opinion that abortion is never justified based on mental health grounds, and abortion should not be paid for by the state of Alaska due to the presence of any form of mental illness in women.”
The credibility of Coleman, Thorp and Washington Dr. Susan E. Rutherford, was called into question by Democrats and Planned Parenthood Northwest. Those groups highlighted histories of advocacy against abortion rights and what they said were questionable studies authored by some of the witnesses.
A 2010 paper from the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit focused on reproductive health issues, said Coleman’s findings linking abortion to mental health were “inconsistent” with research based on similar material and included “inflated” results thanks to questionable methodology.
“Much of what we heard today has long been discredited by major health care associations such as the American Psychology Association and the National Cancer Institute and would actually harm Alaskan women,” Jennifer M. Allen, public policy director for Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest, said in a statement.
After the hearing, Coghill defended the witnesses. The wealth of published research by those who testified showed they are credible, he said.
“My idea today was to roll the bill out and get credible testimony that backed up my position,” he said. “Yes, the people I invited certainly come from a position, but they’re very credible.”
Coghill said opponents of his bill have their own biases.
Coghill said his goal is to stop state funding for elective abortions.
The Alaska Supreme Court has held that the state must fund medically necessary abortions if it pays for other procedures deemed medically necessary for people in need. The bill would define “medically necessary” abortions as those needed to avoid serious risk to a woman’s life or physical health.
During the legislation’s introductions, Coghill and his staffer Chad Hutchison said they believe there are funds going to elective abortions.
“It’s really a matter of payment, not to restrict abortions, but when is it elective? When can we ask you to pay for it? And when should it be medically necessary under Medicaid?” Coghill said.
Committee member Sen. Bill Wielechowski asked what evidence Coghill has of Medicaid dollars going to elective procedures. Coghill and his staff couldn’t answer.
“We think there are elective abortions that fall out of this realm,” he said.
Hutchison laid out a statistical basis for the reasoning. He said Medicaid paid for about 38 percent of the 1,637 abortion procedures in Alaska in 2011. He cited a Guttmacher Institute study that showed 4 percent of women said health reasons were the most important reason behind their decision.
The study showed personal health was a factor in 12 percent of women and the health of the fetus was a factor in 13 percent of cases, below the 38 percent of abortions that receive public funding. The study found “having a baby would dramatically change my life” was a factor among 74 percent of respondents.
Wielechowski also asked whether a political body should decide what is medically necessary.
“Who do you think is a better position to decide if a medical procedure is medically necessary: a woman’s physician or a bunch of politicians?” he asked.
Coghill later said that it’s obviously a scientifically contentious issue so it will be up to the Legislature to make a “policy call.”
Coghill said he’ll host testimony from Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union on Monday. He said he’ll take public testimony at some point after that, possibly as early as Tuesday.
Coghill said he has no timeline to pass the bill out of committee and plans to give ample opportunity to hear from both sides of the issue.
“I made it very clear I’ll open it for other people, and I’ll give them some deference to Planned Parenthood and ACLU,” he said. “This was my day to make my case and I’ll give the public a much broader opportunity, probably.”
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 and follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.