Bill to bar 'abortion providers' from Alaska schools advances in Senate

JUNEAU — The Alaska Senate on Wednesday pushed forward a controversial bill to bar "abortion services providers" from teaching sex education in schools, and require parental permission before children could be taught any sex education.

The bill, Senate Bill 89, is sponsored by Mike Dunleavy, a Wasilla Republican. It emerged from its final committee early Wednesday and is set for a vote by the full Senate on Friday.

The bill doesn't mention Planned Parenthood by name, but that organization is a favorite target of social conservatives like Dunleavy and it says it's being singled out by the legislation. Planned Parenthood says that, nationwide, abortions represent about 3 percent of its patient care. In Alaska, the organization treated about 8,000 patients in the last year, and of all the procedures it performed, about 7 percent were abortions, a spokesman said.

Dunleavy last year inserted the same provisions into a separate bill aimed at reducing sexual abuse and dating violence. But they were ultimately stripped out by his GOP colleagues as part of a compromise on the 2015 budget.

Since last spring, Dunleavy's bill has sat dormant in the Senate Rules Committee. But on Wednesday morning, chairman Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, held a hearing and passed the bill on to the Senate floor for a Friday vote.

"We either have schools that are for education or we have schools for indoctrination," Dunleavy said in a brief interview Wednesday. "Parents don't think we should be sending our kids on the bus to be intercepted by groups who have an agenda."

The action on the bill drew immediate objections from Planned Parenthood and allies of the organization, which teaches sex ed to more than 2,000 children in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, the Mat-Su and on the Kenai Peninsula.

The group says it would be the only one blocked from schools based on the description in Dunleavy's bill. It also pointed to a legal memo sent to Huggins last week by a legislative attorney, who said SB 89 could violate constitutionally guaranteed rights of freedom of association and expression, and would likely face a court challenge.

In an interview, Huggins said that there are legal objections to "almost every bill."

The measure thrusts the Legislature into a national debate over Planned Parenthood that's figured into the presidential race, and one that the organization says is a distraction from Alaska's massive budget deficit.

In a memo to reporters, Planned Parenthood said Dunleavy's bill would deprive students of access to sex ed in a state that leads the nation in the rate of chlamydia infections, and where the unintended teen pregnancy rate is above the national average.

"We should be dealing with the real issues facing Alaskans, not creating barriers and restrictions on youth being able to access the programs they need," said Jessica Cler, an Anchorage-based Planned Parenthood spokeswoman, in a phone interview Wednesday.

The Senate's action comes as the state House has shut down debate on issues unrelated to the fiscal crisis until a budget bill is passed. Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage and a co-sponsor of Dunleavy's legislation, said Wednesday that his chamber is only half the size of the House, yet can handle budget and policy bills.

"We're right on schedule," he said.

But even Dunleavy's allies sounded a little surprised that the bill was getting an airing.

"Believe it or not, there are things going on down in Juneau now unrelated to our current budget crisis," Jim Minnery, the president of the socially conservative Alaska Family Council, wrote in an email to supporters on Wednesday.

Minnery's email included a cartoon showing a pregnant woman getting an ultrasound from a nurse, who was viewing a picture of the fetus on a screen. "The heart looks strong. It should go for a good price," she said, in a reference to the controversy over undercover videos that captured Planned Parenthood officials talking about the procurement of fetal tissue.

Dunleavy's bill currently claims seven Republican co-sponsors in the 20-member Senate. It's unclear whether it has the votes to pass, but it's rare for legislative leadership to allow a bill to proceed to the floor unless it has majority support.

Minnery's email asked his supporters to contact six Republican senators who have not signed on as co-sponsors of Dunleavy's bill. One of them, Click Bishop of Fairbanks, said in an interview Wednesday that he would vote against it.

"I think it should be left up to the local school districts," he said.

Anchorage Sen. Berta Gardner, the Democratic minority leader, said she thought Dunleavy's bill was "terrible policy" and was unnecessarily broad in banning all Planned Parenthood activity in schools.

"If you want to ban any talk of abortion, say so," she said.

If the measure passes the Senate, it would still have to move through the House, where Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, on Wednesday introduced legislation with similar provisions, House Bill 352.

But one House leader sounded more skeptical about the legislation's prospects in his chamber.

"They're real contentious social issues," said Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, who rolled his eyes when a reporter described Dunleavy's bill to him. "It will go through the committee process and it's going to be treated like anything else."

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a 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. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.