Did You Hear the One About the Alaska Legislator Who Said …
We have folks who try to get pregnant in this state so that they can get a free trip to the city, and we have folks who want to carry their baby past the point of being able to have an abortion in this state so that they can have a free trip to Seattle.
One might think, at first blush, that this is a bad joke. Yet this quote actually did fall from the lips of Alaska state representative David Eastman of Wasilla (Anchorage suburb, of Sarah Palin fame) last week, in conversation with the Associated Press. Eastman subsequently made similar comments to other media outlets. Bear with me as I bracket Eastman’s impeachment of women’s character, returning to it below.
Like me, you are probably wondering about this “free trip” thing, given that the Hyde Amendment prohibits the use of federal funding for abortions. Turns out, according to the AP story, that the “Alaska Supreme Court has held that the state must fund medically necessary abortions if it funds medically necessary services for others with financial needs.” Mighty progressive, if you ask me, not least because many women in Alaska must travel vast distances to reach an abortion provider, given the size of the state. And this can be mighty expensive and involve multiple plane journeys, even within Alaska. (Bear in mind that the villages around Bethel and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta are among many Alaska places not accessible by road.) Ditto for those who must travel for other medical services, which the Alaska court has wisely recognized.
Indeed, speaking of distance, the dust-up created by Mr. Eastman reminds me of one of the most knuckle-headed things I’ve ever seen a judge say about the “undue burden” standard under Planned Parenthood of S.E. Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992):
A woman in Alaska, for example, could be required to travel 800 miles to get to an abortion clinic merely because she lives in one place and the nearest abortion clinic is on the other side of the state. But that certainly doesn’t constitute anything even approaching an undue burden.
The judge who wrote this was Dee Benson (now a senior district judge), and the case was Utah Women’s Clinic v. Leavitt, 844 F. Supp. 1482 (D. Utah 1994) (discussed here). Why the Utah judge thought it appropriate or necessary to use an example from Alaska rather than Utah is unclear. I suppose he was looking for the most extreme example of distance he could find–to then make the point that such travel would still not trigger a constitutional problem. Given that Alaska is the largest state in terms of land area, Judge Benson necessarily turned to “The Last Frontier” to illustrate his point.
Interesting in light of this point is the fact that the second largest state in the union, Texas, became the subject of the latest round of litigation over abortion restrictions, culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. Of course, distance ultimately loomed very large in relation to the Court’s assessment of the undue burden standard there because women would have been challenged to travel as far as 550 miles each way (from El Paso to San Antonio) to reach an abortion provider had the Court not struck down Texas H.B. 2. Read more here and here. Distance as an undue burden is also a reminder of my recent exchange with Prof. Carol Sanger of Columbia Law on this blog regarding the significance of spatiality/geography/rurality as it relates to abortion access.
But let me return now to the issue most directly implicated by Eastman’s comments, which is less about the burden of distance (and therefore the “situation of women”)–which the state of Alaska has pragmatically taken care of, at least in part–and more about the character of women. The AP story, by Becky Bohrer, includes not only helpful background for us on abortion availability in Alaska and, for late-term abortions, in Seattle, she also fills us in on the furor Eastman’s comments have generated:
In a speech on the House floor Friday, Democratic Rep. Neal Foster of Nome said Eastman’s comments were unacceptable and said he hoped Eastman would apologize.
“It shocks the conscience to think that a female in a village would want to endure the physical and the emotional pain of getting an abortion just so that they could get a free trip to Anchorage,” Foster said.
Most of the women who live in villages that Foster represents are Alaska Native and feel Eastman’s comments were directed toward them, Foster said. Many Alaska communities are not connected to a road system and smaller communities often have limited health services that necessitate travel to larger communities for care.
Two other “rural lawmakers,” demanded a public apology from Eastman, and Rep. Geran Tarr of Anchorage said she might “seek a motion to censure Eastman,” calling his comments “deeply offensive, racist in nature, and misogynistic.”
It is encouraging to see other legislators standing up for Alaska Natives and other rural populations. And it also brings me back to the really outrageous part of what Eastman said–that women might purposefully get pregnant so that they can have a day out on the town, a freebie trip to the bright lights to get an abortion … and then tie on some shopping or a fancy meal, maybe even a jaunt up the Space Needle. This outrageous suggestion ties perfectly into Sanger’s over-arching point in About Abortion: Terminating Pregnancy in the 21st Century: women take abortion seriously–and we should presume they can make good decisions about it for themselves. We should certainly not presume–as Eastman suggests–that they will get pregnant willy-nilly to “earn” a frolic in the city. Insulting, misogynist and racist, indeed.