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Abortion still legal in Alaska, but lawmakers pushing for constitutional convention

abortion rally --.jpg
Jeff Chen
/
Alaska Public Media
Roughly 200 people gathered at rush hour in Midtown Anchorage in May to rally for the protection of reproductive rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court voted to overturn the landmark case Roe v. Wade today, ending federal protections for abortion rights and leaving decisions about the legality of abortion up to states.

For some states, that means an immediate reversal of the right to abortion. But in Alaska, the right is protected for now.

“Abortion is still safe and legal in Alaska," said Rose O'Hara-Jolley, the Alaska director for the regional branch of Planned Parenthood. “The federal ruling has changed nothing as far as our state constitutional protection to the right to privacy. And so all of the rights that you had in place yesterday in Alaska for abortion access are still in place today.”

That right to privacy was written into the state’s constitution through an amendment in 1972.

“And so the state of Alaska’s constitution has an incredibly strong right to privacy written into it," O'Hara-Jolley said. "And so that covers privacy in all aspects of our lives, and one of those is our medical decisions.”

The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that abortion is guaranteed under that right to privacy.

Opponents of abortion would like to see the state’s constitution amended. And this year, they might have a once-in-a-decade chance to do that through a constitutional convention — where elected delegates could propose changes to the state's constitution.

Alaskans vote every 10 years on whether they want to hold a convention. They’ve said no almost every time.

But the next vote is this November. And conservative and libertarian lawmakers have said they see this year’s vote as a chance to address matters like abortion and the Permanent Fund Dividend.

The PFD question is what interests Nikiski Republican Rep. Ben Carpenter. He said he has mixed feelings about holding a convention.

But he said it could be a good way to address the state’s long-held fiscal woes.

“So I’m kind of leaning toward supporting a constitutional convention at this point," he said.

He said he himself would like to see abortion outlawed, too.

But there are many steps to take before getting there.

Even if Alaskans do vote in November to hold a constitutional convention, that vote would be the first step in a years-long process.

The Legislature would have to decide on a process for electing delegates. Alaskans would then vote a second time on delegates to the convention.

Then, after a convention, voters would still have to approve any changes made by those delegates in another election. And that may or may not include the state’s standing on abortion.

“There are two ways to modify the constitution — to either explicitly say there is a right to abortion in the state of Alaska, or to do the opposite and prohibit abortion within Alaska law,” Carpenter said.

The Alaska Legislature could also pass a constitutional amendment without a convention, though that requires approval by two-thirds of both bodies as well as a general vote.

Conservative lawmakers did make attempts to move legislation through last spring, including SJR4, which would amend the constitution, and HB206, which would address the issue in statute. Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who’s running for reelection, said Friday he'll propose a resolution next session to address the abortion question in an amendment.

O’Hara-Jolley said they’re watching those efforts. And they note access to abortion was never equitable in Alaska — especially in the state’s more rural communities.

“We have the legal right, but it never was enough," they said. "And so we need to not only be protecting that right here in Alaska, but working together to expand it.”

Some states, like Missouri, have already made abortion illegal through so-called “trigger laws” that became activated upon the Roe reversal.

The regional Planned Parenthood has been reorganizing to anticipate those changes. The clinic in Soldotna closed last month in anticipation of the reversal.

The Soldotna clinic didn’t provide medical abortions, though the one in Anchorage does.

Sabine Poux is the news director at KDLL. Originally from New York, she's lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont, where she fell in love with local news. She covers all things central peninsula but is especially interested in stories related to energy and fishing. She'd love to hear your ideas at spoux@kdll.org.
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