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Could abortion become a priority for next Alaska Legislature?

Amanda CoyneThe New York Times
Loren Holmes illustration

So much talk surrounding the upcoming state election has focused on oil taxes and which candidates do or do not support a massive tax cut for the industry funding about 90 percent of Alaska's state budget. Less discussed are other issues -- namely abortion -- that could also become hotly debated in the next session of the Alaska Legislature, particularly if the bipartisan coalition that governs state Senate business is broken up.

Gov. Sean Parnell and oil industry backers have prioritized changing the current composition of the state Senate, which consists of 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats. The potential logjam of a 10-10 split led six Republicans to join all 10 Dems in forming a bipartisan majority back in 2006. At the time, incoming Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, announced that in negotiating the majority, senators made an agreement to avoid hot-button social issues like abortion: "Those issues that are extreme probably will not be addressed."

The other four Republican senators refused to join the coalition, in part because of its moderate stance on abortion. Break up the majority coalition by electing more conservative senators, and Alaskans may also be voting to return abortion and other hot-button issues to the table, a prospect that excites pro-life groups and worries supporters of a woman's right to choose.

Of note: 59 of 60 seats in the state Legislature are up for grabs Nov. 6. The race is just beginning to heat up -- poll numbers aren't out yet -- and it's impossible to predict how and if the Legislature is going to change much. However, at least two staunchly pro-life candidates -- Peter Micciche and Mike Dunleavy -- have won their primaries against relatively moderate Republican incumbents, Sens. Tom Wagoner and Linda Menard, both of whom were a part of the bipartisan majority. Neither Micciche nor Dunleavy face challengers in the general and will thus go on to be elected unopposed.

Take those four staunchly pro-life senators who've been in the minority and add a few more Republicans to create a truly conservative Senate majority; then put that alongside a House of Representatives that's governed by a pro-life majority. The potential result? One of the most socially conservative legislatures in recent Alaska political history. And the cherry on top: Parnell, a governor who's signaled he will sign into law any legislation landing on his desk that restricts abortion rights.

Republican Bob Roses is a former state representative who's running to unseat Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage. Roses doesn't think social issues like abortion will take front-and-center next session. "People, by and large, want to avoid the subject," he said. Alaska Right to Life Director Matt Johnson concedes that oil tax reform will probably be the number one issue, yet again, for lawmakers in 2013. But Johnson also thinks there's a good chance for legislation restricting abortion rights to be passed, too, provided a shift rightward in the Senate.

"If you believe that abortion is wrong, everything else pales in comparison," Johnson said. And he plans on relying on those legislators who believe likewise to make sure that pro-life bills aren't held hostage to oil tax reform and other resource-related issues, as has happened in the past.

One of Alaska's staunchest pro-life lawmakers, Republican Sen. Fred Dyson of Eagle River, is watching the race closely, and with a fair amount of optimism. Dyson, currently in the minority, has witnessed how abortion can get hijacked and killed in a supposed pro-life Legislature. Former Gov. Sarah Palin even opted to deal with a gas line rather than abortion.

This time, Dyson says he's prepared -- and he'll only join a majority if "leadership and committee chairs do not use their position to stop pro-life bills" that have a chance of passage, he said.

He already has three other allies in the Senate minority, and he expects that this November, he’ll have more. Maybe, in fact, enough to at long last pass some anti-abortion legislation that will stick.

What abortion legislation could pass in Alaska?

Abortion restrictions in other states run the gamut:

  • 41 states prohibit abortion after a certain point during pregnancy -- except when it's necessary to protect the life or health of the mother.
  • 8 states restrict abortion coverage under private health insurance plans.
  • 26 states require a woman seeking abortion to wait a specified period of time, usually 24 hours.
  • 9 states have laws that require the mother to make two separate trips to the clinic.
  • Still other states have gone outside the legislative process to pass onerous regulations on abortion facilities.

For all the fierce debates on the issue of abortion in Alaska -- time spent discussing the ethics of it, various surveys put out by groups on both sides of the issue, legislative debates, political careers lost and found -- relatively little actual legislation has ever made it out of the Legislature. And most of the abortion legislation that did pass has been overturned by the Alaska Supreme Court. All that's survived is restriction on a certain late-term abortion procedure. A parental notification law, passed through voter initiative, currently is being challenged in the courts.

Alaska Right to Life's Johnson said that there are specific bills introduced in the past he expects to be revived, plus several others "not ready for prime time" in Alaska but that have been passed in other states.

Two bills likely to get a hearing and that might well pass would require women to receive an ultra-sound prior to undergoing abortion, in order to determine whether abortion is "medically necessary." At stake: Abortion funding from Medicaid, a health insurance program funded jointly by state and federal governments that covers low-income and disabled citizens, including 8,000 Alaskan kids.

In 2011, Medicaid paid for about 38 percent of all abortions in Alaska, according to the Bureau of Vital Statistics.

If the federal government is asked to pick up the cost, the abortion provider must certify that the abortion was performed because of rape, incest, or because the life of the mother is at risk. At various points in history, the Legislature has tried to impose those same standards for Alaskan women.

In 2001, however, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that although the Feds can impose such standards, the state cannot "selectively deny necessary care to eligible women merely because the threat to their health arises from pregnancy." In other words, the state can't decide to pay for a medically-necessary birth for one woman and deny a medically-necessary abortion to another.

What constitutes a 'medically-necessary' abortion?

Since 1993, the state has allowed a doctor to use his or her professional judgment to determine whether abortion is necessary. An administrative code provided guidance. The code said that a woman would be eligible to receive a publicly funded abortion if the pregnancy was a result of sexual assault, abuse or incest. It would also be covered if the procedure was necessary to prevent her death, cause her to be disabled or to "ameliorate a condition to her physical or physiological health."

Pro-life legislators have chafed under the vague terms. Parnell went as far as to veto bipartisan legislation to expand health insurance coverage for impoverished Alaskan families -- including more than 1,300 children -- because it paid for what he called "elective abortions." He said that without guidance about what is and isn't medically necessary, the state will be in a perpetual state of "confusion and turmoil."

A bill introduced last session sponsored by Sen. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, would have cleared up the confusion by further restricting abortion. It was killed in committee, but Keller vows to bring it up next year. And he's got at least one new face in the Senate who believes that pro-life issues are the most important ones facing the state.

Mike Dunleavy beat Linda Menard, a moderate incumbent, in the Republican primary to represent the Mat-Su in the Alaska Senate. Dunleavy, a Catholic, doesn't face a Democrat in the general. He says he objects to abortion not as much on religious grounds, but sees a state obligation to protect its citizens.

"It's not religion that drives this issue for me," he said. "The fact is, I really believe that (embryos) are people, and the state's primary job -- the state's primary function -- is to protect people.

"Nothing is more important than life," he said.

Soldotna Mayor Pete Micciche, who beat Sen. Tom Wagoner in the primary and was endorsed by Alaska Right To Life over Wagoner, might believe likewise. He didn't return numerous calls for this story. 

The candidates

Across Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, Republicans who are challenging Democrats are more bullish on oil taxes than elsewhere in the state. Yet with the notable exception of Sen. Cathy Geisel, the Republicans appear to take a more moderate stance on abortion than their conservative counterparts beyond Anchorage.

Roses, who's running against the Democrat Wielechowski, voted to ban late-term abortions during his time in the state House. Roses doesn't believe that the state should be funding abortions unless the life of the mother is at risk. However, in a recent interview, Roses said that if elected he'd focus on the economy, not social warfare: "If you don’t focus on (the economic) issues, others become a moot point."

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Hollis French’s challenger, Bob Bell, is more conservative than Roses when it comes to abortion. Bell supports a ban on all abortions -- even in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at risk. In an interview, however, he said that although it would be "highly unusual for me to vote any other way than pro-life," if elected he wouldn't bring up the abortion issue and added he'd "prefer it didn't get a whole lot of time" because "when we get into these fights, legislatively, nothing gets solved."

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bettye Davis is being challenged by Rep. Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River, who some think has an advantage thanks to redistricting. Fairclough isn't known for her knee-jerk, right wing stances. In an interview she said she was pro-life but supported abortion rights for victims of incest and rape. "It's hard for either side to hold me close," she said. However, as a House member, her votes, particularly on oil taxes, reflect a tendency to go along with her party, even when she appears to lack the necessary information to make an informed vote. 

Other candidates outside of Anchorage, however, are more stridently pro-life. In Fairbanks, two sitting state senators, Republican John Coghill and Democrat Joe Thomas, will be competing to represent what's considered a very conservative Senate district. Since 1998, when Coghill was first elected to the Legislature, he has carried various bills to restrict abortion. He's not part of the Senate majority.

Also in Fairbanks, pro-lifer and former lawmaker Pete Kelly, is running about Democrat Sen. Joe Paskvan. Kelly, who is a former lawmaker, fought hard in the Legislature to restrict abortions in Alaska. On his campaign website, he calls abortion an "American Holocaust" and says he has "no intention of fighting fair to remove this travesty from our state."

Some of the more moderate Republican senators -- Lesil McGuire of Anchorage, Bert Stedman of Sitka, Gary Stevens of Kodiak -- could provide balance to the pro-life fervor. Yet even all of these Republicans profess to be pro-life candidates. As such, they might have a hard time voting against a bill that restricts abortion.

Davis, the Anchorage Democrat who's been in the Alaska Legislature for 12 years, said that if Republicans take over the Senate, expect social issues like abortion and privatizing education to return to the forefront.

"People always talk about oil taxes. But this is also a reality. If all of those Republicans get elected: that's a strong voting bloc. Some of those bills will probably pass," Davis said.

Correction: The original article said that Sen. Fred Dyson was in the majority in 2006. That's incorrect. Also, the coalition was formed in 2006, not in 2008. 

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com