The landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade recently surpassed its 49th anniversary, but anyone who follows the legal world knows that it is highly unlikely to make it to 50 years. The Court’s hearing of arguments in the case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (which deals with the constitutionality of a blocked Mississippi law that bans nearly all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy) in December showed us that the six conservative justices were interested in upholding that law, thus at least partially overturning Roe. They are set to release their ruling this summer, and social media has recently been awash with maps showing which states would still allow abortions and in what capacity, should Roe be overturned. Some people might be surprised to know that my home state of Alaska, under its current state constitution, would continue to allow abortions. However, that is unfortunately a very fragile statement to make because it may not be true if Alaska continues down its current path. Although Article I, Section 22 of our state constitution says that “[t]he right of the people to privacy is recognized and shall not be infringed,” I do not have strong faith that this clause will continue to protect reproductive rights in Alaska as it has since 1997. This brings me to the governor’s race later this year in which reproductive rights will be a central issue for many people, but for different reasons.
The incumbent in the race is first-term Republican governor Mike Dunleavy, who is strongly anti-choice as demostrated by his 2019 veto of law department funds over a recent state Supreme Court ruling that upheld the state government’s funding of abortions, continuous appointing of conservative judges to state benches, and direction of his attorney general to sign onto an amicus brief in favor of Texas’s infamous six-week abortion law. While unlikely, it is possible that a court or judge could go against precedent and interpret the privacy clause to not include abortions. This is just one reason that we must codify Roe v. Wade into both state and national law, and to do this in Alaska we must start with a pro-choice governor.
The second of the three high-profile gubernatorial candidates is Republican-turned-Independent former governor Bill Walker. He takes the rare position of being opposed to abortion personally but does believe that the state constitution’s privacy clause protects the right to abortion. During his term as governor, however, Walker’s law department defended a law limiting Medicaid funding of abortions. He is running again in 2022, this time with a pro-choice female running mate (potentially to help make his case to women).
The problem with Dunleavy and Walker is that neither of them support codifying the explicit right to abortion and would likely sign bills into law that restrict or even prohibit abortion if Section 22 were to be reworked or removed from the state constitution altogether. While the state legislature is incredibly unlikely to pass a proposed amendment explicitly banning abortion, another pathway could manage to do so. In the past few months, right-wing groups have been increasingly calling for a new constitutional convention, which can happen at any time if the legislature calls for one or if voters say “yes” when asked about it on the general election ballot every ten years. Most of the push has been coming from people who want to add the Permanent Fund Dividend to the constitution, but there are also several groups who wish to use it to restrict abortion by changing or even eliminating the privacy clause. The document has no limits on what cannot be amended, so there is a very real possibility that a new constitution could strongly restrict or ban abortions if approved by voters. In a state where 63% of voters agree with Roe (a surprisingly high percentage for a conservative-leaning one), we could very well see the end of a woman’s right to choose if a new constitution is drafted and passed.
I am holding out hope that a new convention will not end up being called, mainly because it has never been done in Alaska’s history and it is only the far right that seems to be interested so far. But even if Section 22 remains, there is still a possibility that it could be interpreted as not protecting abortion rights, which is why we must codify Roe into a state law. This brings me to the third main gubernatorial candidate, Les Gara, a former state representative from midtown Anchorage. He is the only one of the three who is truly pro-choice and thus provides a direct contrast to Walker and Dunleavy. I was won over by his Anchorage Daily News op-ed, in which he explains his reproductive rights agenda. While I don’t agree with him on everything, I will be voting for Gara primarily because he is the only candidate who believes in codifying Roe and would appoint precedent-upholding judges when it comes to reproductive rights. He also echoes my views on Walker’s attitude towards abortion by stating that “[Walker’s agenda] works as long as courts say our constitution protects the right to choose. While I respect the offer, it isn’t a promise to defend a woman’s right to choose.” For women like me, having a governor who will not legislate people’s reproductive systems means more than ever in our tense judicial climate.
With the new ranked-choice voting system, I will be voting for Gara in the open primary and ranking him first on my ballot during the November general election. Assuming that no other truly pro-choice candidates make the top four, Walker will be second and Dunleavy third or last. We have too many politicians who don’t care enough about women’s issues, and I implore readers to not trust them, especially during this crucial year. Only vote for those who will be steadfast in defending the right to choose when the time comes. This will be my first time voting in a governor’s race, and I am so thankful that I am of age to do so. Furthermore, I strongly encourage my fellow Alaskans to vote in this incredibly high-stakes race in which many of the recent legal and political challenges against reproductive rights will come to a culmination and create an incredibly consequential outcome.