A national advocacy group has accused the state of Minnesota of using taxpayer money to pay for tens of thousands of elective abortions in violation of state law.

In a lawsuit filed this week, the Alliance Defending Freedom said an analysis of abortions paid for by the state's Medicaid program found that barely one in four gave a reason of medical necessity, even though the state is permitted to use taxpayer funds only for therapeutic abortions.

Chuck Shreffler, a Minneapolis lawyer working with the alliance, said the state's own reports show that Medicaid paid for more than 47,000 abortions between 1999 and 2011, and that medical reasons were cited in only 10,044 instances.

"It looks like a significant number of these abortions are actually elective abortions," he said, in spite of state law forbidding the use of public funds in such cases.

The lawsuit was filed in Ramsey County court on behalf of a Brooklyn Center couple, Denise and Brian Walker. The suit also accused the state of paying for a disproportionate number of abortions for African-American women, and asked for an injunction against the Minnesota Department of Human Services, which oversees Medicaid.

The agency issued a brief statement saying it is reviewing the complaint and will file its response with the court.

Since the 1970s, Minnesota has forbade the use of state funds for elective abortions. But in 1995, the state Supreme Court ruled that the state must cover medically necessary abortions for women on Medicaid, known in Minnesota as Medical Assistance. The state currently spends about $1.5 million per year for Medicaid abortions.

Now, Shreffler says, "we have several years' of data from the Department of Health that suggests that the state is paying for more than just therapeutic abortions."

Shreffler said he asked the Health Department, which collects data on all abortions in Minnesota, for a breakdown of the reasons given for all publicly funded abortions during a 13-year period ending in 2011.

Shreffler said the report showed that women cited medical reasons, including emotional and physical health and fetal anomalies, 10,044 times. They cited economic or other reasons, or refused to answer, 58,340 times. Some women gave more than one reason, but the vast majority did not assert that the abortion was medically necessary, the data showed.

Shreffler said the story changes when doctors submit their bills to the Department of Human Services. In that case, doctors cited "other health reasons" for 99.7 percent of the publicly funded abortions from 2006 to 2010. "On its face, there's some significant inconsistency," he said.

The lawsuit also states that the plaintiffs, who are African-American, "are especially aggrieved" that 40 percent of publicly funded abortions are performed on African-Americans, who account for 5 percent of the state population.

The alliance, which is based in Arizona, calls itself a "legal ministry that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384