Alaska Court Rejects State's Denial of Needed Medical Care to Low-Income Women

Affiliate: ACLU of Alaska
March 17, 1999 12:00 am

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Wednesday, March 17, 1999

ANCHORAGE– Moving to protect low-income women from being denied state funding for medically necessary abortions, a Superior Court judge in Alaska today declared unconstitutional a measure which denied such funding for women receiving Medicaid.

The Alaska Civil Liberties Union and the national ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project applauded the ruling, issued by Judge Senter Tan.

The groups filed suit last summer on behalf of Planned Parenthood of Alaska and two local doctors who feared that loss of state aid could endanger their patients. Their fears proved to be well-founded, as at least one provider has indicated that 30% fewer women have been able to choose abortion since the funding cuts took effect on July 1, 1998.

“We are delighted that the court has seen so clearly what the legislature has not — that the state cannot discriminate against poor women who need an abortion for medical reasons,” said Jennifer Rudinger, Executive Director of the Alaska Civil Liberties Union.

Under the new scheme, passed by the State Legislature last session, poor women with epilepsy, heart disease, cancer, and many other conditions for whom pregnancy involves severe consequences, but not death, were being denied abortion coverage.

To assist these women, Planned Parenthood of Alaska created the “Choice Assistance Loan Fund” to loan money to low-income women who need abortions and are eligible for Medicaid. According to Anna Franks, Executive Director of Planned Parenthood of Alaska, 80 low-income women have been given loans through the fund.

“This decision is not about the morality of abortion,” said Franks. “It is about providing medical expenses equally for all women.

“During the eight months since this funding was denied,” she added, “we have heard from frantic, desperate women with serious health conditions who couldn’t get the help they required. It’s a relief to know that low-income women will once again be able to obtain the medical assistance they need.”

In 1997, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that reproductive choice, including the right to choose abortion, is a fundamental right in a lawsuit brought by the AkCLU, Valley Hospital v. Mat-Su Coalition for Choice.

Today, Judge Tan ruled that the State had not demonstrated a compelling reason for infringing women’s fundamental rights to make their own reproductive choices. “[O]nce [the State] undertakes to fund medical treatment for indigent Alaskans,” he wrote, “it cannot withhold funds from some eligible persons because they choose to exercise a constitutional right. The conclusion I have reached is based upon the right of the individual to the constitutional guarantee of privacy, not on the right of women to government funding.”

Rudinger noted that over the past two decades, several state Attorneys General, under both Democratic and Republican Governors, have analyzed similar funding schemes under the Alaska Constitution and have come to the same conclusion that Judge Tan arrived at today.

She added that similar funding schemes have been challenged in 15 other states and have been struck down in 12 of those states.

“In every state with an explicit privacy clause in their state constitution, like Alaska’s,” Rudinger said, “the courts held the restrictions illegal and permanently enjoined enforcement of the statute or regulation which would have excluded state medical payments to poor women for medically necessary abortions.”

The ACLU’s lawsuit was filed on June 18 in Superior Court against the State Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) and DHSS Commissioner Karen Perdue.

The case is Planned Parenthood of Alaska v. Karen Perdue, Commissioner, Department of Health and Social Services. Attorneys in the case are Christine Schleuss of Suddock & Schleuss in Anchorage, as an AkCLU Cooperating Attorney, and Lisa Landau and Jennifer Dalven of the national ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project.

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