Court Strikes Down Discriminatory Anti-Abortion Law in Alaska

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Law that would withhold Medicaid coverage from women seeking abortions is declared unconstitutional
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Today, the Alaska Supreme Court struck down a state law and Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) regulation that would have severely limited Medicaid coverage of abortions for low-income women. The decision in State of Alaska v. Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest held that the statute and regulation violated the equal protection guarantee of the Alaska Constitution by creating criteria for Medicaid coverage of abortions not imposed on any other service covered by Medicaid.   

In their decision, the Court found that, “Strict scrutiny applies to the challenged measures because they discriminate between classes of pregnant women based on their ‘choice whether or when to bear children’ in a manner that deters the free exercise of that choice.”

“This law treats two classes of people unequally—women who seek abortions and women who carry pregnancies to term. That is without question unconstitutional,” said Autumn Katz, senior counsel for The Center for Reproductive Rights. “Today’s decision confirms that the state cannot discriminate against Alaska women on Medicaid should they decide to exercise their constitutional right to abortion.”

This case was originally filed in 2014 by Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest (PPGNHI) along with the Center for Reproductive Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America in Alaska Superior Court against the state Department of Health and Social Services, alleging that the state’s regulation restricting Medicaid coverage of abortion puts a burden on pregnant low-income women who already have the least access to health care in our state.  The regulation was temporarily blocked in February 2014.  Shortly thereafter, the Alaska legislature passed a statute adopting an even more restrictive law, and a challenge to that law was added to the litigation.  After a trial in 2015, the trial court struck down the statute and regulation. The state subsequently appealed the case to the Alaska Supreme Court.

“We applaud the Alaska Supreme Court for striking down these cruel, inequitable restrictions on abortion access for low-income people,” said Chris Charbonneau, CEO of PPGNHI. “Politics and judgment have no place in the exam room, and today Alaska’s highest court agreed. All Alaskans, regardless of their income or zip code, deserve the freedom to make decisions with their physician based on what’s best for their health and their family, no matter what.”

“Today’s decision by the Alaska Supreme Court reaffirms that all women, even those without wealth, have a right to medically necessary care, including an abortion,” said Susan Orlansky, ACLU of Alaska Senior Counsel. “This is a right the ACLU of Alaska is proud to stand up and fight for at every turn.”

“This win should be an example to other states that continue to deny women the ability to end a pregnancy just because they’re poor,” said Brigitte Amiri, Deputy Director, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “The right to an abortion shouldn’t depend on your income, and we will not stop fighting until every woman in this country is able to get the care she needs.”

Despite state constitutional protections for abortion, politicians in Alaska have a long history of attempting to improperly restrict Medicaid coverage of abortion and today’s decision ensure that low-income women continue to have access to abortion services in the state.

Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands is represented by its Chief Legal Officer, Hannah Brass Greer; Autumn Katz of the Center for Reproductive Rights; teams of attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood Federation of America; and Alaska counsel Susan Orlansky