JUNEAU — Abortion will remain legal in Alaska and obtainable in Juneau, with no likelihood of changes in the near future, if the U.S. Supreme Court’s leaked draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade is indeed the high court’s final decision next month.
But the issue is likely to heat up this year’s local and state elections, increase calls for a statewide constitutional convention to alter privacy language that ensures abortion rights and could have consequences for family members or others who help people obtain abortions in states with so-called “bounty laws”.
Also, U.S. Sen, Lisa Murkowski is now likely to be a central figure in the near-term possibility of the U.S. Congress passing a law ensuring nationwide abortion rights.
Those collective assessments by politicians and advocates on both sides of the abortion issue were made after the leaked draft opinion was first reported by Politico at about 5 p.m. Alaska time Monday.
While many have expected from the current U.S. Supreme Court such a ruling — which Chief Justice John Roberts emphasized is not final even as he confirmed the authenticity of the draft — actually overturning the 49-year-old Roe v. Wade decision is seen as bringing the issue to the political forefront.
“I believe that Alaska’s Legislature is going to feel this in their elections fairly quickly,” said Cindy Smith, a longtime Juneau resident who’s served on the boards of the Juneau Women’s Council, Alaska Women’s Lobby and Juneau Pro-Choice Coalition.
“There will be pressure for a constitutional convention. I think there will be increased pressure on judicial appointments.”
Abortion in Alaska is legal at all stages of pregnancy, and the Alaska Supreme Court ruled in 1997 the state constitution’s privacy clause means “reproductive rights are fundamental…these fundamental reproductive rights include the right to an abortion.” But the number of abortion clinics in Alaska has declined sharply during the past 40 years — with Planned Parenthood in Juneau being among those still providing them — and numerous attempts made in proposed legislation and constitutional amendments to eliminate abortion rights.
Among the current efforts is a proposed constitutional amendment introduced in January that states “to protect human life, nothing in this constitution may be construed to secure or protect a right to an abortion or require the State to fund an abortion.” It appears the existing Legislature lacks the votes to pass such an amendment, prompting some abortion opponents to support a vote scheduled in November calling for a constitutional convention.
Also, the Alaska State House — which has a 21-member predominantly Democratic majority coalition — passed by a 21-18 vote a budget amendment last month intended to cut Medicaid funding for abortion. Courts have overturned previous attempts to eliminate public funding for abortion services, but some voting in favor of the amendment say the same outcome isn’t a future certainty.
“I don’t really care if we have to run it through courts 100 times,” Rep. Kevin McCabe, R-Big Lake, said in support of the amendment in April. “Let’s run it through the courts. Maybe we’ll get a different outcome.”
Calls to Alaskans for Life, a Juneau-based anti-abortion organization, were not returned Tuesday. A statement on its Facebook page, linking to an article by Alaska Watchman Editor Joel Davidson published Tuesday, asserts Alaska Supreme Court rulings on abortion have been based on incorrect interpretations of the state constitution.
“While Alaska’s Constitution grants the State Legislature sole authority to ‘implement’ the constitutional right to privacy, the Alaska Supreme Court has, nevertheless, consistently commandeered this privilege in order to construe the right to privacy as including a right to abortion on demand,” the post states.
Public and political sentiment
A Pew Research Center poll in 2019 found 63% of Alaskans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, consistent with polls by other entities in recent years.
Alaska’s two Republican U.S. senators are split on the issue, with Sen. Lisa Murkowski emerging as a nationally prominent figure by voicing supports for abortion rights. The current Senate has a 50-50 Democratic/independent and Republican split. At least one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of Virginia, is anti-abortion, meaning at least one Republican vote is necessary for any efforts to codify abortion rights into law nationwide.
On Tuesday, addressing reporters at the U.S. Capitol, Murkowski said, “I find it shocking this would happen.”
“Roe is still the law of the land,” she said. “We don’t know the direction this decision will ultimately take. But if it goes in the direction that this leaked copy has indicated I would just tell you it rocks my confidence in the court right now. Sen. (Susan) Collins and I in February introduced a bill that would codify Roe v. Wade. I thought it made sense then and I think it makes perhaps more sense now.”
Murkowski declined to comment about changing filibuster rules to pass such a bill, and if she feels misled by statements U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — who was among those voting to overturn Roe in the draft opinion — made before she voted “present” during his confirmation.
She did vote to confirm Amy Coney Barrett, another new justice cited in the draft ruling as voting in favor of overturning Roe, stating at the time, “I don’t see her overturning the decision.”
U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska did not publish a statement about the leaked ruling at his website or on social media as of Tuesday afternoon, although a spokesperson at his Washington, D.C., office said the senator planned to release a statement during the day.
He has stated “life begins at conception and we must fight to protect the lives of the unborn,” voted to defund Planned Parenthood in 2015, and favors a ban on abortion after 20 weeks except in cases of rape, incest and to protect the mother’s life.
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy and other Republican candidates running for governor in this fall’s election have said they oppose abortions, with varying exceptions. Former Gov. Bill Walker, who is running as an independent, stated in 2018 he is personally opposed to abortions, but would veto legislation seeking to restrict them — although during the 2014 campaign he took back a similar promise.
Les Gara, a Democrat who describes himself as the only pro-choice candidate for governor, said in a prepared statement Tuesday his primary concern is a governor who appoints state judges who overturn existing abortion rights much as the U.S. Supreme Court appears ready to do.
“I’ll screen judicial candidates to seek ones who’ll leave their politics at the courthouse door and who’ll follow existing Alaska court precedent protecting choice,” he said. “The wrong state judges, like their wrong federal counterparts, can also rule Alaska’s right to privacy doesn’t cover a woman’s right to choose.”
Even if abortion remains legal in Alaska, residents could be affected by laws in states such as Texas that allow anyone to sue for financial damages a person or entity enabling residents of those states to obtain an abortion. Smith said that means a relative or friend here of such patients could literally pay a heavy price.
“(Say) your sister lives in Texas,” Smith said. “She wants to be with people she loves and trusts … if you aid somebody in paying for your sister’s airfare then you too are liable.”