JUNEAU -- A Republican state senator argued in a prominent forum this week that most sexual activity is recreational and that the Legislature doesn't need to add more birth control coverage for poor women -- a conclusion immediately challenged by a Democrat pushing an expanded family planning program.
Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, in an interview Friday stuck by his opposition to more state funding for birth control as unnecessary, as expressed in his Wednesday speech on the Senate floor.
On the other side, Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, said she continues to be baffled about why an anti-abortion lawmaker wouldn't back a proven way to prevent unwanted pregnancies and reduce abortions.
The showdown over family planning services is getting attention from left-leaning news organizations. Mother Jones and the Huffington Post both posted online a video of Dyson's speech against more state funding for birth control. Mother Jones headlined its story "Inside Alaska's New 'War on Women.'"
In an earlier round of floor speeches, Dyson, 75, had spoken about the disturbing number of abortions and even infanticides that target girls around the world. Gardner responded that more access to birth control would help prevent unwanted pregnancies and reduce abortion in Alaska.
Gardner is trying to create a new women's health program here that would provide family planning and birth control services to thousands of low-income adults who now don't qualify for Medicaid insurance. Last year she succeeded in inserting the program into a bill intended to limit state funding for abortions. This year, a House committee stripped it out. The measure, Senate Bill 49, now is awaiting a vote by the full House.
In his five-minute Wednesday speech on the topic of "other people's money," Dyson said he decided to do his own research into the availability and costs of birth control.
"Don't let your minds go wild here," the senator said. "I found that there are a dozen places here in town at least where you can buy condoms. They are a dollar a piece. There are some exotic ones that are more than that, amazing variety."
Dyson said he also checked with a pharmacist who told him birth control pills cost $18 to $30 a month.
"By comparison, the vending machines down here, the pop is $1.75 to $2.50 a bottle or can. You know, four to five lattes will pay the $18 a month. So it is my position no one is prohibited from having birth control because of economic reasons."
And no one should have trouble getting access, Dyson said. He said Planned Parenthood has assured him no one is turned away.
"By the way you can go on the Internet, you can order these things by mail," Dyson said. Alaska Airlines will even rush a package through its GoldStreak service, he said.
"By and large sexual activity is recreation," the senator said. "I don't think there's an overwhelming or a compelling reason for the state or the people -- i.e. other people's money -- to be required to finance other people's recreation."
He referenced prostitutes and said "the fee for service easily covers the cost of the supplies." Even the most active don't need to spend more than $2 or $3 a day, he said.
Gardner, the Democrat, responded, saying she was speaking on the topic of "where to begin?"
While it's true that condoms are relatively inexpensive, many forms of birth control require a doctor's exam and in the case of pills, a prescription, Gardner said on the Senate floor.
And while women may be able to get free or low cost care at urban clinics, options are more limited in rural Alaska, she said.
A Planned Parenthood spokeswoman wrote in an email that Dyson had "a frighteningly incomplete knowledge of women's health care."
"There are so many factual inaccuracies and embarrassing falsehoods in Dyson's comments that there's no real point in picking it apart piece by piece," said Jessica Cler, spokeswoman for the organization's advocacy arm, Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest.
Planned Parenthood gets some federal dollars to provide family planning and birth control services, but not enough to cover everyone, she said.
"If everyone in need of birth control in Alaska were to rely on the ability of Planned Parenthood to provide free services, we wouldn't be able to keep our doors open," Cler said.
Bill Streur, health and social services commissioner, has said that about 14,400 Alaskans would qualify for an expanded Medicaid program as proposed by Gardner though it's unknown how many would sign up. With Medicaid coverage, patients wouldn't be limited to certain clinics.
Dyson said Friday he doesn't oppose birth control on principal. Nor was he speaking out against expanded family planning because of the cost. Rather, he said he was addressing the argument that birth control is too expensive or unavailable.
He maintains neither is true.
Gardner said she is convinced not all women can afford birth control, or even pay for a bus ride across town to get to a clinic.
She said it's offensive for legislators, with their health insurance and state incomes, to make pronouncements about women who may be in desperate situations.
Perhaps the real objection is to the very idea of birth control services, she said.
"Why otherwise wouldn't they support it?" Gardner said.
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 952-3965.
By LISA DEMER