Alaska abortion access unchanged, for now, after Roe v. Wade is overturned

Abortion access in Alaska will not be impacted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, but pro-life supporters want to change that.
Published: Jun. 24, 2022 at 4:58 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Abortion access in Alaska will not be impacted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, but pro-life supporters want to change that.

Alaska was one of a handful of states that had legalized abortion before the landmark 1973 decision on abortion was issued. Federal constitutional abortion protections were struck down on Friday, but the state’s constitutional right to privacy was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1972, and it remains intact. The Alaska Supreme Court ruled that those strong privacy protections extended to reproductive rights and abortion access in 1997.

Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who identifies as pro-life, pledged to introduce a constitutional amendment at the next legislative session “to answer the question whether abortion shall, or not be a constitutionally protected right.” If passed, the amendment would not appear on the ballot until 2024.

“I have always had faith in the people of Alaska to make the right decision when it comes to our constitution and protecting our fundamental rights and this issue is no different. My position on this issue has been made clear. Alaskans should have the opportunity to make their position clear as well,” he said through a prepared statement.

But with sharp divisions in the state Capitol, that is a high bar to overcome. Two-thirds of the House of Representatives and the Senate would need to pass a constitutional amendment, which would then need to be supported by a majority of voters.

The Alaska Legislature adjourned its regular session in May, meaning it is not set to convene again until after November’s election in January next year. Alaska voters could have their say on the issue before then.

Every 10 years, Alaska voters are constitutionally required to be asked if they want to hold a constitutional convention. It’s a process that would likely take several years to even begin, but delegates could add or amend articles to Alaska’s constitution, including one that’s been proposed to take decisions about abortions away from state judges.

Jim Minnery, president of the Christian Alaska Family Council, was ecstatic on Friday. He has been advocating for Alaskans to vote “yes” on the constitutional convention question to protect “unborn Alaskans.” He said for the faithful, it may seem “divinely appointed” that the constitutional convention question will be on the ballot a few months after Roe v. Wade has been struck down.

But it is not certain a convention would end or restrict abortion access in Alaska; delegates may not approve an article to do that, and any constitutional changes would then need to be approved by a majority of Alaska voters after a convention wraps up its work.

Abortion and abortion access are poised to become central issues in this year’s elections. Candidates and elected leaders from across the political spectrum released a flood of statements after the court’s decision was announced on Friday, expressing both joy and outrage.

Wasilla Republican Rep. Chris Kurka, who is also running to be Alaska’s next governor, is strongly pro-life, having led Alaska Right to Life before he was elected in 2020. He said that Dunleavy’s constitutional amendment plans are “pie in the sky” and that he should immediately call an abortion-related special session on the road system.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Friday whether he would do that, or if Dunleavy would support the constitutional convention vote. Dunleavy has previously declined to take a public position on that question.

Independent former Gov. Bill Walker identifies as pro-life, but he released a statement on Friday, saying that he would defend Alaska’s constitution and a woman’s right to choose. Walker said he would campaign in opposition to a constitutional convention.

Former Democratic state legislator Les Gara identifies as the only pro-choice gubernatorial candidate in this year’s race. He says that Alaska’s abortion rights may not be as secure as they appear. Two of the Alaska’s Supreme Court justices will retire in the next three years, having passed the mandatory retirement age of 70, and Gara said it will be critical who the next governor appoints to replace them.

At a federal level, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, released a statement in support of a woman’s right to choose and noted that she has supported legislation to codify reproductive rights. But she has been criticized on social media for voting to confirm three of the five conservative Supreme Court justices who joined together to strike down Roe v. Wade.

Pro-life Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka said that the court’s decision represents “a victory for millions of pre-born Americans to come” while Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Pat Chesbro said she was “outraged” by its impacts on a woman’s right to choose.

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