People in Alaska have long had what voters in Ohio just adopted — strong constitutional abortion rights to make decisions about their own bodies that the courts have affirmed over and over again.
But there is one barrier that needlessly limits access to abortion and hampers reproductive freedom: Alaska’s Advanced Practice Clinician ban (APC ban). This state law arbitrarily limits who can provide abortion to physicians, even though advanced practice clinicians, like advanced practice registered nurses, physician assistants, and certified nurse-midwives, are qualified and able to safely provide this care. Like most abortion restrictions, this law disproportionately harms Alaska’s rural and most underserved communities, including Alaska Native and American Indian people who have endured a history of state-controlled reproduction, coercion, and denial of bodily autonomy.
That’s why a group of organizations — Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Planned Parenthood Great Northwest Hawai’i, Alaska, Indiana, Kentucky, Legal Voice, and ACLU of Alaska — filed a lawsuit in 2019 to overturn the APC ban and empower qualified health care professionals to provide abortion. We were in court for oral arguments last week to fight for the constitutional right to access abortion for all people in Alaska.
It’s imperative we remove the challenges patients face when they need access to abortion. Increasing the number of qualified abortion providers will reduce travel time and costs, wait times for services, and lighten the burden on both patients and providers. Leading health care organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, recommend allowing advanced practice clinicians to provide abortion. This approach is already improving access to abortion in 20 states and Washington, D.C.
With abortion, like all pregnancy care, time is of the essence. But Alaska’s legal and logistical barriers, including the APC ban, contribute to delays in care. Under the APC ban, Alaska’s constitutional right to abortion could be meaningless for people in remote areas, who must travel greater distances than people in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau to access basic reproductive health care. A trip to see an OB-GYN can be near impossible: Patients must often find child care, miss work and find a way to pay for their travel and lodging. If the patient is experiencing intimate partner violence, leaving home overnight for an abortion appointment may even be dangerous.
We’ve seen these barriers stop patients from getting care at our Planned Parenthood health centers. Because only physicians can provide abortion, patients who learn they are pregnant when a physician is not at one of our health centers must return for a second visit to have an abortion. The unnecessary delay pushes them further along in their pregnancies, increasing their safety risks, and shrinking the window for receiving an abortion altogether.
Alaska faces a severe health care workforce crisis that has stretched providers of all kinds to their limits and jeopardized access to care for many people in the state. Approximately 7,500 new health care workers must be hired across Alaska every year to keep up with staffing needs, including more than 1,500 registered nursing recruits annually. With a severe physician shortage, allowing qualified providers like nurse practitioners to provide abortion would help ease that burden.
We are hopeful the court will remove this inequitable barrier, helping the state be true to the promise it has made to protect residents’ rights to reproductive choice and abortion.
Rebecca Gibron is CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Northwest Hawai’i, Alaska, Indiana, Kentucky (PPGNHAIK), the largest Planned Parenthood affiliate in the country.
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