If the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade next year, it will drop the issue of abortion squarely into Alaska’s election for governor. So far, five candidates have entered the race, and more could sign up before the June 1 deadline.
While access to abortion is protected by the Alaska Supreme Court’s interpretation of the right to privacy in the state constitution, whoever is elected governor has significant indirect power.
If a governor appoints judges hostile to abortion, the court’s interpretation of the privacy clause in the state constitution could change, mirroring a similar shift on the U.S. Supreme Court. The governor could also take more indirect actions to try to influence abortion access.
In 2019, for example, incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed money from the budget of the state appeals court in retaliation for decisions protecting the right to an abortion. A Superior Court judge ruled that action unconstitutional, and the governor’s office reversed it.
Under Dunleavy, the state has joined other Republican-led states in urging the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Before Dunleavy, former Gov. Bill Walker directed the Alaska Department of Law to defend state laws restricting Medicaid payments for abortion. A lower court had blocked them in Walker’s first year, calling them unconstitutional. (The defense wasn’t successful; the Alaska Supreme Court also ruled them unconstitutional.)
Dunleavy said he remains opposed to abortion. It’s too early, he said, to say what he would do if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
“We’ll have to see what comes out of the Supreme Court. We don’t know yet. So until that’s settled, all we’re going to be able to do is speculate,” he said in a brief interview this month.
Walker, an independent, is also running for governor in 2022 and said he does not support a constitutional amendment to change the privacy clause and would oppose one in the Legislature.
He said he does not support the idea of a constitutional convention to change the clause and, if elected, would attempt to keep abortion rights at the same level they were when he entered office.
Walker, like Dunleavy, has previously said he is against abortion. During his 2014 campaign for governor, he pledged to veto any legislation that would weaken abortion rights, then recanted that pledge later in the campaign.
Libertarian candidate Billy Toien said he is anti-abortion “by sentiment” but opposes the idea of changing the constitution’s privacy clause by amendment or convention, “because there is no telling how far something will go, no matter how it’s labeled on the front.”
Rep. Christopher Kurka, R-Wasilla, is running for governor as a Republican candidate. He said he would continue to pursue legislation declaring that life begins at conception. (He has already proposed such legislation in the state House. It has not advanced.)
He also said that because he believes in the primacy of the Legislature, if lawmakers were to cut public funding for abortion as they have in the past, he would follow that order even if state courts rule that the constitution requires it.
“If I’m governor, if the Legislature is passing a budget that says we don’t want to pay for abortion ... I’m going to follow it and we will not be paying for abortion,” he said.
Democratic candidate Les Gara, a former state lawmaker from Anchorage, participated in abortion-rights rallies earlier this year and said in an opinion column this month that he will defend abortion access and not allow his attorney general “to roll back a woman’s right to choose.”
In a brief interview, he said Alaskans who support abortion rights should not be too comfortable with the precedent set by the Alaska Supreme Court. As the U.S. Supreme Court’s arguments appeared to demonstrate, precedent may change under new judges, he said.
If he is elected governor, “as judicial candidates are presented to me, I’ll want to know whether or not they’ll respect precedent on choice, before I make my decision on them. That’s the most important way to make sure that current law remains into the future and doesn’t disappear,” he said.