Democratic Party blasts witnesses on abortion bill

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JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Experts scheduled to testify on an abortion bill Wednesday are "extremists" who have made "outlandish, demonstrably false claims" about abortion, the chairman of the Alaska Democratic party said ahead of a hearing on the measure.

Mike Wenstrup said John Thorp Jr., Susan Rutherford and Priscilla Coleman "have an agenda that is utterly inconsistent with the respect for personal freedom and privacy that Alaska's founders wrote into our Constitution."

They've been asked to testify on SB49 that pertains to which abortions Alaska must pay for under the state Medicaid program. The bill states that the Department of Health and Social Services may not pay for abortion services under the program unless those abortions are medically necessary or the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.

The bill would define "medically necessary" abortions as those needed to avoid serious risk to a woman's life or physical health. That could mean a serious risk of death or "impairment of a major bodily function" due to such things as renal disease that requires dialysis; congestive heart failure; coma; or "another physical disorder, physical injury, or physical illness, including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy" that places the woman's health at risk.

Payment would not be made 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's sponsor, Sen. John Coghill, said with the list of testifiers, he is trying to establish that the discretion that would be given the doctors is credible.

The issue is emotionally charged, with critics calling the bill dangerous for women and an example of government overreach. Coghill, R-North Pole, said he's not surprised by the reaction to his witness list, noting that each side could view the other's arguments or positions as extreme. In doing his research, Thorp, Rutherford and Coleman struck him as "very credible."

Thorp was an author of a 2003 report that argued doctors, before an abortion is performed, should offer women information about preterm delivery, depression and breast cancer, according to a news release from that time. A 2011 legal filing described him "as one of the leading experts in evidence based women's reproductive health" who encourages providing ultrasound images and information on fetal development to pregnant women.

Coleman authored a study linking abortion to an increased risk of mental health problems. Researchers, in a report published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research last year, said that study reached wrong conclusions.

Coghill, whose Senate Judiciary Committee is hearing the bill, said Planned Parenthood would have a chance to present its case next week, and the public will also have a chance to comment.

"It's not so much about who can make the most noise or who can make the most accusations but how do we really describe something that the Supreme Court, in my view, left open for discussion," he said.

Two of the committee's five members have signed on to the bill as co-sponsors. Coghill, the Senate majority leader, said he had not determined yet whether he had sufficient support in the Senate to pass the bill.

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Follow Becky Bohrer on Twitter at http://twitter.com/beckybohrerap

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