The Alaska Legislature is awash in controversial debates about changing how judges are selected, ensuring election integrity and solving the state’s mounting fiscal crisis, to name a few. One topic that hasn’t gained much attention is abortion.
That could change in the days ahead with a bill introduced by Sen. Shelley Hughes’ (R-Palmer). Senate Joint Resolution 4 is a carbon copy of a bill that died in the last legislative session. The resolution aims to amend Alaska’s Constitution by stating: “To protect human life, nothing in this Constitution may be construed to secure or protect a right to abortion or require the State to fund an abortion.”
With the current environment in the Legislature, landmark legislation dealing with abortion will have a difficult time gaining meaningful traction. If approved by two-thirds vote of the House (which is controlled by Democrats) and two-thirds of the Senate, it would then be placed on the ballot for the next statewide election. A majority of Alaskans would then need to vote in favor of the amendment for it to become law.
The wording of SJR 4 is nearly identical to a constitutional amendment passed last year in Louisiana, which makes clear that abortion is not a protected right and that no state dollars can go to pay for them. Since Roe v. Wade allows for abortion across the nation, the Louisiana law did not ban the practice, but it does set the stage for outlawing abortion if Roe is ever overturned.
Hughes’ proposal is similar, except that it would immediately bar Alaska from continuing its practice of using public money to pay for abortions through the state-funded portion of Medicaid. To date, the Alaska Supreme Court has ruled that the State Constitution demands that Alaska use public funds to foot abortion costs. All Alaska governors have acquiesced to the court’s ruling so far, including Gov. Mike Dunleavy, despite the fact that the Legislature has explicitly prohibited state funds from being used pay for most abortions.
While the Alaska Supreme Court does not control the state’s purse strings, it nevertheless demands that Alaska set aside money for abortion.
Alaska is one of 10 states to uphold a right to abortion based on state supreme court rulings. If Alaska passes the proposed constitutional amendment, however, it will join Tennessee, Alabama, West Virginia and Louisiana which have constitutional amendments declaring that their state constitutions cannot be interpreted by judges to secure or protect a right to abortion or mandate that the state pay to have babies aborted. Kansas voters will decide the fate of a similar proposal in August 2022.
Hughes’ amendment also addresses a controversy that has played out between the State Legislature and the Alaska Supreme Court for decades. Despite numerous bills passed by the Legislature and signed into law by various state governors, Alaska’s courts have blocked enforcement of virtually all efforts aimed at limiting or restricting abortion. These laws included initiatives passed requiring a minor girl to get parental consent before an abortionist can perform surgery on her. Another law merely required parental notification before the abortion. One law attempted to ban partial birth abortions. All of these, however, have been blocked or gutted by Alaska Supreme Court rulings over the past two decades.
While the Supreme Court does not control the state’s purse strings, it nevertheless continues to demand that the state set aside money for abortion.
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The Alaska Supreme Court claims to have found a right to abortion in a 1997 case, Valley Hospital Association, Inc. v. Mat-Su Coalition for Choice, when it ruled that the state constitution guaranteed the right to abortion under its right to privacy section adopted back in 1972. The right to privacy section, however, was not established to guarantee abortion rights, but to protect Alaskans against invasive, personal data mining at the dawn of the computer age. Nevertheless, 25 years after the right to privacy was established the court claimed that abortion was included in this even though the word “abortion” is never once mentioned. Based on this ruling, the court has consistently held that it is a violation of the state constitution to impose any restrictions on abortion.
Hughes’ proposal looks to remove any tactics the courts might conjure to uphold abortion by citing the state’s constitution.
The resolution is currently assigned to the Senate Health and Social Services Committee, which is chaired by Republican Sen. David Wilson. An initial hearing is expected to take place on March 16 at 1:30 p.m. This initial hearing will only include invited testimony. General public testimony will likely occur during a later hearing.
- Written testimony in support of SJR4 can be emailed to Sen. Hughes here: [email protected]
- Click here to contact the other members of the Senate Health and Social Services Committee.
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