The Alaska Supreme Court today struck down a 2014 law that limited public funding for abortions to ones that were deemed “medically necessary” by the Alaska Legislature, upholding a lower court ruling that argued the law violated the Alaska Constitution’s equal protections clause.
The Legislature sought to prohibit Medicaid funds from going to abortions unless a doctor determined the pregnancy would pose “serious risk to the life or physical health” of the woman and included 21 physical conditions. The limitations raised plenty of opposition, including concerns that the list specifically omitted any psychological conditions.
The limitations were first put into place as regulations in 2013 under the Gov. Sean Parnell and were later codified in 2014’s Senate Bill 49, authored by long-time anti-abortion Sen. John Coghill, and lawsuits were quickly brought by Planned Parenthood, ACLU of Alaska and the Center for Reproductive Rights. Injunctions against both the regulations and the law were quickly granted by the courts and the law was struck down by the Superior Court in 2015.
Gov. Bill Walker’s administration continued the lawsuit, appealing the case to the Alaska Supreme Court and arguing for a more lenient interpretation of the law that argued that the “serious risk to the life or physical health” of the woman should be more important than the listed 21 conditions.
The Alaska Supreme Court, in its opinion released today, cited the legislative record, arguing that the law fell on the more restrictive end of things and that those 21 listed conditions—which include severe diabetes-related organ damage, renal disease that requires dialysis treatment, sickle cell anemia or coma—were intended to essentially be the list of acceptable conditions.
The Alaska Supreme Court didn’t buy the argument and agreed with the Planned Parenthood case:
“We affirm the superior court’s decision,” the opinion explains. “These measures cannot be interpreted as leniently as the state suggests, and their language compels a ‘high-risk, high-hazard’ interpretation akin to that adopted by the superior court. This standard imposes different requirements for Medicaid funding eligibility upon women who choose to have abortions than it does upon women who choose to carry their pregnancies to term. The statute’s and the regulation’s facially different treatment of pregnant women based upon their exercise of reproductive choice requires us to apply strict scrutiny, and the proposed justifications for the funding restrictions do not withstand such exacting examination. We therefore conclude that the statute and the regulation violate the Alaska Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.”
The opinion was written by Justice Susan Carney. A dissenting opinion, which argues for the more lenient reading of the law, was authored by Chief Justice Craig Stowers, whose term ended last year.