Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Friday called for a vote on a constitutional amendment that could remove constitutional protections for abortion in Alaska through a public vote — one of several reactions from Alaska political figures in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic decision to remove federal protections for abortion access and put that power into states’ control.
In Alaska, the right to an abortion, which is quickly becoming one of the defining issues of this election year, continues to be protected under the state constitution’s privacy clause and several Alaska Supreme Court rulings.
But abortion opponents hope that will change: In November, Alaskans will vote on whether to call a constitutional convention, which could pave the way for a yearslong process to alter the state constitution in a way that allows for a statewide abortion ban. The constitutional amendment proposed by Dunleavy, a Republican, represents a different path toward accomplishing the same end result.
On all sides of Alaska’s political landscape, elected officials, policymakers and advocates responded Friday to the Supreme Court’s decision, which has already altered the fabric of the nation and left millions of Americans without access to safe and legal abortion.
Two viewpoints captured opposite ends of the spectrum of responses to the landmark ruling.
“It feels awful because it is awful,” said Rose O’Hara-Jolley, Alaska state director with Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates Alaska.
“Today is one of the best days of my life, actually,” said Jim Minnery, executive director of Alaska Family Council, a Christianity-based organization that opposes abortion.
Statewide polling on the issue has suggested majority support for abortion rights. In 2017, an Anchorage Daily News poll found 63.5% of Alaskans support the Roe v. Wade decision. A Pew Research Center poll in 2019 found 63% of Alaskans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
In Anchorage, a crowd rallied in support of abortion rights Friday evening at Town Square Park. Carrying signs with slogans like “Abortion is health care” and “You can’t ban abortion, you can only ban safe abortions,” rallygoers marched through downtown. At times they chanted, “My body, my choice!” and drew honks from drivers cruising by.
Another rally and march was held Saturday, starting at the Delaney Park Strip and ending at Town Square Park.
Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who supports abortion rights, said in a statement Friday that it’s now “up to Congress to respond,” adding that she would make it a priority to “restore women’s freedom to control their own health decisions wherever they live.”
“Today the Supreme Court went against 50 years of precedent in choosing to overturn Roe v. Wade,” she said in the written statement. “The rights under Roe that many women have relied on for decades — most notably a woman’s right to choose — are now gone or threatened in many states.”
Alaska’s courts have continually upheld abortion rights under the state’s constitution, but in at least 13 states where so-called “trigger bans” exist, abortion will become illegal within 30 days of Roe v. Wade being overturned.
As of Friday, abortion is now illegal in nine states — home to 7.2 million women of reproductive age.
Murkowski is running for reelection in November and has come under fire from abortion rights supporters over her key votes to confirm two of the Trump-appointed Supreme Court justices who later backed the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
A Murkowski spokesperson said she was unavailable for an interview Friday.
Her primary Republican opponent in this year’s election, Kelly Tshibaka, called the decision a “massive victory for millions of preborn children to come” in a social media post.
“We mourn the tens of millions of innocent people who have been killed under Roe v. Wade,” Tshibaka said in a video posted to Twitter. She has campaigned on a platform of conservative values and restricted access to abortion.
Alaska’s other U.S. senator, Republican Dan Sullivan, said he also supported the Supreme Court decision.
“I recognize that abortion is a profoundly emotional issue upon which many Alaskans have strongly held views and serious disagreements,” Sullivan said in his statement, describing himself as a “pro-life Catholic.” “The decision today does not by any stretch end that debate. However, it does take the debate out of the realm of federal courts, and gives it back to the states and the people of our country, where I believe it belongs.”
Sharp differences among governor candidates
Dunleavy — an opponent of abortion rights whose reelection bid faces challenges from the left and the right — said he believes the overturning of Roe v. Wade “presents an opportunity for the people of Alaska, not a handful of elected officials or appointed judges, to decide the future of abortion in Alaska.”
He said he planned to introduce a resolution in the next legislative session for a proposed constitutional amendment “to answer the question whether abortion shall, or not be a constitutionally protected right.”
In 1997, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that “reproductive rights are fundamental, and that they are encompassed within the right to privacy expressed in article I, section 22 of the Alaska Constitution.”
“These fundamental reproductive rights include the right to an abortion,” the court said.
Passing a constitutional amendment would require approval from two-thirds of the state House, two-thirds of the state Senate and a majority of participating voters in the next general election — something that political observers say is unlikely to happen.
Democrat Les Gara, who is running against Dunleavy, condemned the Supreme Court decision.
“Alaska will become the last line of defense for a woman’s right to choose, and to make her own private health decisions,” he said. “As Governor I’ll veto anti-choice legislation. 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.”
Former Gov. Bill Walker, challenging Dunleavy as an independent, said that while he personally identified as “pro-life,” he believed his role was to uphold the state’s constitution.
“While we recognize the Dobbs decision is extremely controversial, we take seriously our oath to uphold the constitution ... which has long guaranteed that a woman has the right to make her own reproductive decisions,” read a statement from Walker and running mate Heidi Drygas.
Christopher Kurka, a right-wing Wasilla state representative who is also running for governor, said he was “overjoyed” by the ruling. He urged Dunleavy to call a special legislative session to pass the Alaska Life at Conception Act, which would criminalize abortion.
“Even though we are in campaign season, we must lay aside our differences and speak with one voice to demand a halt to the unconstitutional killing of the state’s most vulnerable and voiceless residents,” he said. Kurka is the former executive director of the anti-abortion organization Alaska Right to Life.
Republican gubernatorial candidate and Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce expressed his support of the court’s decision. In a post on social media, he said that Alaskans would decide the fate of a constitutional convention, which would offer a chance to address “many, many items” and “would certainly be an exciting time.”
Alaska Family Council’s Minnery, who has spent much of his career advocating for abortion access to be restricted, said Friday that he was looking forward to advocating for a constitutional convention.
He said his organization’s primary objective is to eliminate what he described as “elective” abortions.
‘This won’t stop us’
In an interview, O’Hara-Jolley, with Planned Parenthood, on Friday described the “ripple effect” the latest decision is having across the country.
“The court especially failed Black, Latino, Indigenous and other people of color, who are disproportionately harmed by abortion bans due to this country’s legacy of racism and discrimination,” said O’Hara-Jolley.
”This won’t stop us. We’re going to rebuild and reclaim the freedom that is ours, and we will never stop fighting to restore and defend the rights of people seeking sexual and reproductive health care,” O’Hara-Jolley said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska called the decision a “misogynistic, regressive ruling” that would make it possible for lawmakers around the country to “deny Americans the right to make fundamental health care decisions about their own bodies.”
“In the face of this attack on the individual liberty and autonomy, the ACLU of Alaska is working with partners to send a clear message and to implement strategies to protect and expand access to abortion,” the organization said, “and to ensure that all Alaskans can make their own decisions about their bodies and futures.”
Daily News photojournalist Emily Mesner contributed reporting.
[Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that Gov. Dunleavy called for a vote on a constitutional amendment that could remove protections for abortion in Alaska, not a constitutional amendment that outlaws abortion.]