Alaska Legislature

Wasilla lawmaker defends remarks on women seeking abortion

The Wasilla lawmaker threatened with censure over his unsubstantiated assertions last week that village women "try to get pregnant" to "get a free trip to the city" for an abortion issued two statements Saturday, the first of which contained the word "apologizes" but didn't say what he was apologizing for — or to whom.

Rather than clarify his first statement, the second statement sent from freshman Republican legislator David Eastman hours later criticized what he called "circus" media and denied he was "anti-women" or that he was singling out any specific race.

"I am unabashedly Pro-Life," Eastman said in his second statement. "Some believe that makes you anti-something. It doesn't. It doesn't matter whether babies are black, white, brown or any other skin color. Every single one of them has the right to live and breathe the same air that you and I do."

Eastman's statements Saturday followed bipartisan condemnation of his abortion comments last week, including a letter from four Democratic House members representing rural districts that demanded Eastman apologize for this remarks.

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

The first Native elected House speaker, Bryce Edgmon, of Dillingham, was one of the lawmakers who signed the letter. He said Saturday he did not see any apology in Eastman's statements that day.

"I didn't see someone who is contrite or remorseful about making awful comments about women both in village Alaska as well as throughout the state as a whole," he said.

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Eastman's first statement, issued shortly after noon Saturday, only contained a headline: "Representative David Eastman Apologizes" and gave the office phone number for an aide, Jerad McClure. The statement was attached to an email from McClure along with copies of two letters from people praising him, as well as copies of statements from House Republicans and Democrats condemning his remarks.

McClure did not respond to several messages left at Eastman's Juneau office Saturday afternoon, and Eastman did not respond to messages left on his cellphone. McClure answered the office phone Saturday evening, but said he could not speak on behalf of Eastman, who was only taking written questions.

In response to emailed questions, Eastman wrote that he was apologizing because "some Alaskans felt targeted by the way my comments were reported on in the media." He said it was not his intent to "target" any Alaskan.

Eastman appeared in a 12-minute segment on KTVA Saturday evening. KTVA reported in an online story that it invited Eastman onto its 5 p.m. newscast to make his apology live. It said Eastman sidestepped questions and "did not apologize for his controversial comments as he indicated to KTVA was his intention."

Eastman's second statement, sent around 6 p.m. Saturday and titled "Representative Eastman Responds to Accusations" made no mention of an apology.

The problems for Eastman began earlier last week, when he inserted anti-abortion language into a resolution aimed at raising awareness about sexual assault and child abuse. After his amendment was approved in the House Rules Committee, Eastman was interviewed by The Associated Press, and he said:

"We have folks who try to get pregnant in this state so that they can get a free trip to the city, and we have folks who want to carry their baby past the point of being able to have an abortion in this state so that they can have a free trip to Seattle."

He later told a reporter for Alaska Public Media, "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."

He cited no evidence for either assertion.

On Saturday, his second statement didn't address the intent of women in villages. He said that in "every single interview" about his resolution he said "we have cases of people that get free government travel and then when they get to where they are going, they do not show up for the appointment."

In a response to an emailed question asking if he stood by his comment to Alaska Public Media, he said his comment referenced a "specific case that was brought to our attention this session, and is in no way meant to reflect on any group or community."

In an interview Friday, Edgmon said Eastman was engaging in "political opportunism."

"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," Edgmon said. "They're also the most hurtful and most cruel expressions that I've witnessed.

"I can sit here and talk to you as a politician and give you talking points," Edgmon continued. "But this is bull—-. It's not even remotely true."

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."

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.

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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.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is an Anchorage-based journalist and a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media, and has written for FasterSkier.com, The Washington Post and others. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at natherz.substack.com

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