Reproductive rights and Alaska

In the November general election, more than 70 percent of Alaska voters rejected holding a  Constitutional Convention, leaving the state’s constitutional privacy clause unchanged for another 10 years. 

The privacy clause protects abortion and reproductive rights in Alaska, one of the few states where abortion remains legal now that the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. Since that June decision, 13 states have adopted a full ban on abortion, and some states have restricted it after a period of weeks. How safe are Alaska abortion rights?  

“We are very excited about the resounding rejection of a constitutional convention that Alaska voters showed,” said Rose O’Hara, Alaska director of Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates. “I think it shows what we have already known or just improves what we already knew. Planned Parenthood, which is not abortion access, is widely supported in the state of Alaska. That being said, we absolutely do anticipate further attacks on abortion.” 

There is a possibility the Alaska Legislature could attempt to pass a constitutional amendment to restrict abortion and reproductive rights without a convention. But that would require agreement by two-thirds of the state Senate and House, then approval by Alaska voters.  

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, said it is likely anti-abortion legislation will be proposed during the upcoming legislative session. 

“I predict with great certainty that it will be proposed,” Kiehl said in an interview with the Whalesong. But he also predicted anti-abortion legislation would not see significant movement in the legislature. 

“Now, never say never. Never let your guard down. Those are important things, but I am somewhat optimistic that we will be able to stop that kind of legislation,” Kiehl said. 

Bills to ban abortion outright would violate the the Alaska constitution, but Kiehl said the legislature could try it. “If they were to pass and be signed by the governor and become law the court should strike them down,” he said.

One thing Kiehl said could come up in the legislative session are proposals to take some enactments concerning abortion out of the constitution, including one that requires a spouse or partner to be notified before a person can terminate a pregnancy. 

“The Alaska courts have said it’s not the spouse or partner’s pregnancy. It’s not their body, not their choice. The right to privacy does not mean you and somebody else. It means you,” Kiehl said. “So you may see bills introduced to take some of those unconstitutional enactments off the books.”   

Planned Parenthood’s O’Hara anticipates conservative legislators could try to “erode reproductive rights and health care in any ways that they can” in the 2023 session. 

“We’ve seen other ways to try to whittle away abortion access, most notably removing access to abortion care from Medicaid – extensively saying that you know if you’re wealthy, if you have private insurance, then you get a different set of health care than other people who need help from the state,” O’Hara said. “And now that they’ve lost the Constitutional Convention and that avenue, we do believe that they will most likely continue to try other legislative policy avenues as well. So it’s important to stay vigilant.” 

One of O’Hara’s goals is to expand access to abortion and reproductive care in Alaska.  

“You know with abortion being legal it has never meant that it’s been equitable,” she told the Whalesong. “So abortion being safe and legal is a great start, but we will continue to make sure that it is fully accessible and equitably accessible to everyone in the state of Alaska.” 

Planned Parenthood Great Northwest has sued the state of Alaska to allow more healthcare professionals to provide abortion medication or other reproductive health services. The state limits abortions or dispensing abortion medication to licensed physicians in facilities approved by the Department of Health and Social Services. The lawsuit challenges the state to expand who can provide this care to include advance practice registered nurses and physician assistants. This would expand access to abortion for rural communties who do not have liscensed physicians available to them.

“ We are hoping to win and change the way that medication can be dispensed in order to further access to abortion medication in the state,” she said.  

She believes the majority of Alaskans support abortion access. “We need you here yelling that with us, loud and proud until we have elected officials and a government and systems that reflect our values,” O’Hara said. “And I am so excited to work with a younger generation, not because I think you are the future, but because I think you are the now.”

She said it’s important not to pass off problems that previous generations have created. “I’m here to fix them and to listen to you and work with you.” 

by Teigan Akagi, Staff Writer, UAS Whalesong

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