Just one hearing is enough for widely panned abortion bill, say Senate Republicans on health committee

Sens. Cathy Giessel and Peter Micciche discuss Giessel's Senate Bill 124, which deals with abortion during committee on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018.

Nearly nobody likes Sen. Cathy Giessel’s bill that would force doctors performing abortions to determine whether or not a fetus would be viable outside the womb so the doctor can deliver the child and put it up for adoption, but that didn’t stop Senate Republicans on Monday from advancing the bill from committee after a single hearing.

The Senate Health and Social Services Committee held a hearing on Senate Bill 124 on Monday to review the bill, hear public testimony and hurry it along to the next committee of recommendation without amendments or answers to the many questions raised during the hearing.

Much of the hour and a half spent on the bill was to hear public testimony, which was almost universally against the bill.

Supporters of abortion and reproductive rights–including representatives from Planned Parenthood and the ACLU of Alaska–opposed the bill as expected, panning it as “offensive,” “legally dangerous,” “a waste of time,” “condescending,” and “unneeded.” The bill, opponents argue, would effectively force women considering late-term abortions, which are almost universally reserved for health emergencies, to give birth against their will.

What was less expected was the frigid reception it got from the anti-abortion crowd. They called it “wicked,” “evil” and supporting of “baby murder” because it didn’t go far enough to stop abortions. They cast shame on Giessel for introducing such a measure, and urged her to kill the bill in order to sub in Rep. David Eastman’s broad ban on abortion.

By our rough count at least 17 people, regardless of their feelings on abortion, explicitly testified against the bill.

The committee also raised questions about the legal definition of viability and wondered if perhaps the bill should set a specific length in a pregnancy for the law to kick in instead of leaving it to the doctors. There were also plenty of questions about the liabilities created by the bill, who exactly would take immediate care of the child and who would be held responsible if things went wrong.

Giessel roundly dismissed questions about the bill’s constitutionality.

“There is no expectation that this would be litigated,” she said.

Every recent abortion bill passed by the Legislature has been challenged in courts, and the most recent effort to limit payments to the “medically necessary” abortions was nixed by the courts.

How SB 124 works

Direct from the bill’s language, here’s the explanation of what would be expected from doctors performing abortions.

When a physician performs or induces an abortion in the state, the physician shall use the method of terminating the pregnancy that provides the best opportunity for the unborn child to survive after the child is removed from the pregnant woman’s womb if, in the physician’s clinical judgment, the method of terminating the pregnancy does not present a serious risk to the life or health of the pregnant woman.

If the unborn child is removed from the pregnant woman’s womb alive under (the above paragraph) of this section, any health care practitioner present shall exercise the same degree of professional skill, care, and diligence to preserve the life and health of the child as a reasonably diligent and conscientious health care practitioner would render to a child born alive at the same fetal age in the course of a natural birth.

The bill also sets up a legal avenue for the child to be then declared a child in need of aid and surrendered to the state foster care system.

Move it along

Even though the committee didn’t have answers, the meeting was plenty for Republicans on the committee, who all voted in favor of moving the bill.

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, made the motion to advance the bill from committee after the single hearing on the bill. The legislation, he said, is better reviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee

“I frankly believe this is much less a Department of Health and Social Services bill than it is a bill that needs to be reviewed by judiciary,” he said, later adding “I’m not sure this was an appropriate first stop.”

Earlier he had explained his view on abortion.

“If I could do a complete ban, I would,” he said.”We’ve got that little Roe v. Wade issue in the way.”

Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, was the lone vote against forwarding the bill (though Sen. Natasha Von Imhof certainly had her misgivings about the bill, initially voting an emphatic “No rec” before being told she had to either vote yes or no to moving the bill. She voted to move it.).

“I heard not one person who testified from folks who opposed this bill from the position of privacy or from a position of opposing abortion,” Begich said during the hearing. “Nobody supported this bill, so I’m not sure we’re ready to move the bill out if there’s no support for the bill. I think we have an obligation in that regard to consider if we move a bill out.”

After the bill was advanced from committee, Begich also asked whatever happened to Senate Bill 72, Sen. Berta Gardner’s bill providing state anti-discrimination protection for transgender people. That bill, which arguably has less do to with health and social services than the abortion bill, has already had two hearings in the Health and Social Services Committee without being moved.

Sen. David Wilson, who chairs the committee, said Garder would have to submit a new hearing request before he would consider hearing it.

Senate Bill 124 now heads to the Senate Judiciary and Finance committees.

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