JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A developmental psychologist testifying before a state Senate panel Wednesday said she doesn't believe abortion is ever justified on mental health grounds.
Priscilla Coleman, a professor of human development and family studies, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that abortion in fact is a "substantial contributing factor" in women's mental health problems.
Coleman was one of three experts called to testify Wednesday on SB49, which 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 Wednesday, he was trying to establish that the discretion that would be given the doctors is credible and to make his best case possible.
The issue is emotionally charged, with critics calling the bill dangerous for women and an example of government overreach. Coghill, R-North Pole, said Tuesday that 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, Coleman, John Thorp Jr. and Susan Rutherford struck him as "very credible."
The chairman of Alaska's Democratic party, Mike Wenstrup, on Tuesday labeled the witnesses as "extremists" who have made "outlandish, demonstrably false claims" about abortion. Wenstrup said Coleman, Thorp and Rutherford "have an agenda that is utterly inconsistent with the respect for personal freedom and privacy that Alaska's founders wrote into our Constitution."
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.
Thorp, a professor of maternal and child health in the public health school at The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, said he didn't remember that filing. Asked by the committee's lone minority member, Sen. Bill Wielechowski, if he felt providing counseling before an abortion was medically necessary, he said he considered it both medically necessary and ethically obligated. Thorp said he worked with bill drafters on a list of conditions that "unequivocally" and greatly threaten the life of the woman.
Coleman said she has authored over 50 peer-reviewed scientific articles, of which 37 dealt with the psychology of abortion. Coleman authored a study linking abortion to an increased risk of mental health problems that researchers, in a report published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research last year, said reached wrong conclusions. Coleman said she disagreed with that finding under questioning by Wielechowski, D-Anchorage.
Rutherford is a maternal and fetal medical specialist in Washington state. She said it's rare for an abortion to be required out of medical necessity and said she does not perform abortions. She recommended that kidney infection be taken off the list in SB49 of conditions that pose a serious risk to the woman, saying she's never seen one that would necessitate an abortion.
A Coghill aide, Chad Hutchison, said 623 abortions in Alaska were paid by Medicaid in 2011. He could not say whether any of those were not deemed medically necessary but pointed to a study that indicated a small percentage of abortions nationally were due to a physical problem.
Wielechowski asked who was in a better position to decide the issue of medical necessity: "a woman's physician or a bunch of politicians?" He said this is an issue dealing with constitutional rights. Coghill said the bill revolves around who pays for an abortion and is not a restriction on whether a woman can obtain an abortion.
Coghill, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Planned Parenthood would have a chance to present its case next week, and the public will also have a chance to comment. Two of the committee's five members have signed on to the bill as co-sponsors.
Jennifer Allen, director of public policy for Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest, said much of the testimony given has been "discredited by major health care associations." The group pointed to Coleman's assertion that there is a preponderance of evidence suggesting abortion will exacerbate pre-existing mental health illness and a potential link to breast cancer.
"The bottom-line is Alaskans know that a woman should have accurate information about and equal access to all of her legal options," Allen said in a statement. Wednesday's "hand-picked testimony on Alaska women's health is simply intended to coerce, judge and shame a woman who seeks safe and legal abortion," she said.
Follow Becky Bohrer on Twitter at http://twitter.com/beckybohrerap .