Alaska Legislature

Alaska House colleagues condemn Wasilla lawmaker amid furor about his comments on abortion

Wasilla Republican Rep. David Eastman brushed off bipartisan condemnation on Friday, and continued pressing unsubstantiated claims about state spending on abortion — claims Alaska House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingam, denounced as "political opportunism."

House members said Friday they're considering a censure of Eastman — a rare public rebuke — for assertions they called shocking, inflammatory and racist.

"I think Eastman's comments, which clearly are racially charged, are the most blatant form of political opportunism I've seen in my 20-plus years I've been in the Capitol building. They're also the most hurtful and most cruel expressions that I've witnessed," Edgmon said in a phone interview Friday. "I can sit here and talk to you as a politician and give you talking points. But this is bullshit. It's not even remotely true."

Eastman didn't answer a phone call Friday or respond to an emailed question seeking comment on Edgmon's statements.

The first-term legislator set off the furor Tuesday, when The Associated Press published his provocative comments about abortion from an interview with an AP reporter.

"You have individuals who are in villages and are glad to be pregnant, so that they can have an abortion because there's a free trip to Anchorage involved," Eastman subsequently told Alaska Public Media.

He added: "I can think of a case that was brought to our attention earlier this session where you had a family who was very glad to hear that their abortion had gone beyond a certain point, because they were going to be heading to Seattle."

Those stories included no additional details or documentation from Eastman, and he didn't provide any in response to an emailed question Friday.

"Media soundbites (sic) is a terrible way to debate state policy," he wrote. "We have a legislative process for that."

But the leader of his own House Republican minority criticized him Thursday morning. After that, Eastman issued a prepared statement calling for hearings to "investigate state funding of abortion-related travel."

And he followed that with a speech Friday on the House floor, ignoring colleagues' pleas for an apology.

"Many concerns have been brought to my attention — some by constituents and some by those in other districts," he said. "And I believe those merit further concern in this body."

A state health department report shows 438 of the 1,330 abortions in Alaska in 2015 were paid by the state-federal Medicaid health-care program. But the report doesn't include information on travel costs, and a department spokesperson said she couldn't immediately provide details.

Planned Parenthood has said about 100 Alaska women a year travel Outside to get an abortion. Restrictive state regulations — currently under review by the Alaska State Medical Board — have the effect of forcing women to leave Alaska for second-trimester abortions.

[Alaska medical board at center of state fight over abortion]

The Department of Health and Social Services "uses the same out-of-state travel policy regardless of what type of medical service is being provided outside of Alaska," said spokesperson Susan Morgan.

"The reality is, living in Alaska means you have to travel for care — all kinds of care, not just abortion," a Planned Parenthood spokesperson, Katie Rogers, wrote in an email Friday. "There is shame and stigma attached to only focusing on abortion."

Some House Democrats said Eastman's comments had racial undertones, given the number of Alaska Native women who live in rural villages.

Edgmon and three other House Democrats from rural districts — Dean Westlake of Kotzebue, Neal Foster of Nome and Zach Fansler of Bethel — wrote Eastman a letter Friday demanding a public apology for comments they said "insult the dignity and integrity of not just our rural constituencies but all Alaska women."

"It shocks the conscience to think that a female in a village would want to endure the physical and emotional pain of getting an abortion just so they could get a free trip to Anchorage," Foster said in his own floor speech Friday.

Eastman, 35, was elected last year after running to the right of one of the Legislature's most conservative incumbents, Wasilla Rep. Wes Keller, in the GOP primary. He beat Keller by almost 200 votes in a four-way contest.

On his first day in office, Eastman was the sole House member to vote against Edgmon's election as speaker. And since then, he's faced criticism after being on the losing side of 39-1 votes on bills to honor Hmong and Laotian veterans and to commemorate the work of African-American soldiers on the Alaska Highway.

[Wasilla lawmaker sole 'no' vote on bill honoring black soldiers' work on Alaska Highway]

Former political blogger Casey Reynolds dubbed Eastman "Alaska's own Ted Cruz" — a reference to the Republican Texas senator's preference for ideological purity over pragmatism.

While Eastman's votes and comments have drawn him national publicity, he has little leverage over state policy as a member of the House GOP minority with little seniority.

He introduced a new bill Friday to make female genital mutilation illegal at the state level, though it's already illegal under federal law.

Edgmon referred it to three committees, a tactic that's often used to delay or defeat legislation.

"I don't care to read the bill and as far as I'm concerned, it's all tied to these comments," Edgmon said.

Eastman released a prepared statement — issued, unusually, by his own aide rather than the House minority's press secretary — calling female genital mutilation "a violation of the natural, God-given right to liberty guaranteed to all persons in the Constitution of the State of Alaska."

Asked why the bill was necessary given the federal law, Eastman wrote in an email that "the feds all too often decline to prosecute good criminal cases here in Alaska."

He didn't respond to a request for documentation of cases of female genital mutilation. Chloe Martin, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney in Anchorage, said that law enforcement has not referred any cases to federal prosecutors for at least 10 years.

The country's first-ever federal prosecution of female genital mutilation took place in April in Michigan.

Alaska does take in more than 100 refugees each year and many are from African countries where female genital mutilation is sometimes practiced.

"I think we're all aware of the fact that it could be a situation that we might encounter," said Stephanie Birch, who supervises the women's, children and family section of the state's public health division. But, she said, the division has not encountered any new or old cases in Alaska.

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