A Virginia House committee opened hearings yesterday into whether the state should fund abortions for poor women amid charges that the president of the state Board of Health had prohibited Health Department employes from testifying.
In the first of what promises to be a highly emotional series of hearings and votes, Del. Mary A. Marshall (D-Arlington) suggested that board of health president Dr. Kenneth M. Haggerty might have violated state law that permits legislators to question government employes.
The charge against Haggerty who heads the board that serves as the independent policy making body of the state Health Department, stemmed from an assertion by a Health Department official that Haggerty had made a "strong suggestion" to department heads that led to two state employes leaving the commitment room before the hearing began.
The charge temporarily obscured the main issue discussed at the hearing, which was called to discuss five bills aimed in one way or another at restoring some access to abortion for women who might not otherwise be able to afford the medical procedure: Postponent of the main measure under discussion, which has been proposed by Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington), said that the moral question of abortion was not the issue, but rather whether poor women should be discriminated against simply because they cannot afford the cost.
Opponents claimed that abortion is in fact murder and said that the state should not fund it for that reason.
Haggerty's role is seen by some as a prime example of the sort of controversy surrounding the question. The Board of Health, which is composed of gubernatorial appointees who serve without pay, voted late last year to cut off state funding for Medicard abortions despite the urgings of the entire senior staff of the Health Department. The state Medicaid-Medicare Advisory Board also favor continuing the funding.
Gov. John Dalton recently upheld the Board of Health's decision to cut off the funding, which amounted to about $450,000 last year, or less than 2 percent of the state Medicaid bill of $250 million. At this point, only the legislature can overrule the board and require that the funds be spent.
Haggerty said yesterday he has "not said anything to the commissioner (of health) that could be interpreted" as a directive to employes not to participate in the hearing. But he added that if an employe took a position in a legislative hearing that was contrary to the board's policy it would appear "inconsistent."
Dr. Robert Jackson, an assistant director of the health department, had said that a "strong suggestion" from Haggerty had been relayed to department heads at a staff meeting and for that reason he and another employe left the committee room before the hearing began yesterday.
As a result of Haggerty's "strong suggestion," Del. Stambaugh said he would not ask employes to be present for questions because it would put them in an "awkward" position. It was because they had not appeared in the first place that led to charges that Haggerty had forbidden them to be there.
Jackson, a strong supporter of Medicaid funding of abortion, said that in retrospect "our conspicuous absence made more of a statement that anticipated." Jackson said Haggerty's "strong suggestion" was "inappropriate."
Stambuag's bill would restore abortions to the medical aid provided by federal and state funds."Under the laws of this nation and this commonwealth, abortion is a legal medical procedure, 'Stambaugh said. "To punish the poor is not the proper way to change what you pay consider a wrong or immoral law."
Two other bills under discussion would allow Medicaid abortions of pregnancies caused by rape or incest, or in cases where the mother's physical or mental well-being is threatened or the fetus deformed. Opponents to all the bills said they would not approve of even those cases. "Pregnancy caused by rape or incest is very rare," said Majorie Higgins of the Richmond-based Virginia Society for Human Life. "Abortion changes nothing. It does not help the victim and it destroys the child."
Dr. William Grossman, chairman of the Governor's Advisory Board on Medicare-Medicaid, said that failure to allow poor women abortions is an imposition of others' religious beliefs and a "serious invasion of privacy." He added that Medicaid recepients would probably not appear to testify in support of the bills.
The testimony yesterday is expected to be a mere preview of things to come, since the bill has been referred to a subcommittee.