The uproar began last week when Alaska Rep. David Eastman, a Republican, tacked an antiabortion message onto a resolution aimed at raising awareness about child abuse and sexual assault.
“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,” he said, referring to his concerns over the use of state funds and Medicaid to cover abortions, including some travel costs. Restrictive state regulations have the effect of forcing women to leave Alaska for second-trimester abortions in the state of Washington.
He later reiterated his comments, telling a reporter for Alaska Public Media, “You have individuals who are in villages and are glad to be pregnant, so that they can have an abortion because there’s a free trip to Anchorage involved.”
He cited no evidence for his assertions, which drew widespread criticism and were interpreted by some as offensive, racially charged statements singling out rural, Alaska Native women. And though he addressed and clarified his statements in multiple interviews, he refrained from giving a straightforward, unqualified apology, despite demands from some lawmakers. In some cases, he attacked the media, blaming journalists for the firestorm.
That changed on Wednesday when the Alaska’s Democratic-controlled House censured Eastman over his comments in a 25-14 vote, taking the unusual step of rebuking the lawmaker after hours of debate, according to the Associated Press. Most members of the Republican minority voted against the rebuke.
In a 20-minute speech on the House floor, Eastman said he was sorry for his comments, and that “certainly if I could go back and not say them, I would do so.”
He later asked for forgiveness from anyone he had hurt, but also argued that “we will not solve the true, real problems of our state by finding people to silence,” according to Alaska Dispatch News. Eastman is a first-term lawmaker who represents Wasilla, where former Alaska governor Sarah Palin once served as mayor. Eastman has referred to himself as the “least politically correct legislator” in Alaska, according to the Associated Press.
The House censure carries no weight beyond expressing a formal reprimand from the House, and it places no restrictions on Eastman’s future conduct.
A number of House lawmakers and local groups supported the censure, including the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, which released a statement describing Eastman’s comments as demeaning and “misogynistic.”
“When you understand that Alaska Native women already experience a disproportionately higher rate of domestic violence and sexual assault than any other group in the nation,” said the group’s president, Richard Peterson, “I consider these comments by Representative Eastman to be a direct insult to Alaska Native women … period.”
Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands spokeswoman Katie Rogers said Eastman’s comments were “ludicrous and despicable.”
“The process for a woman to get to Seattle to access reproductive health care — a full range of reproductive health care — is incredibly challenging,” Rogers said, according to Alaska Public Media. “To even suggest that women are benefiting off the very restrictions that the state has put in place as relates to second-trimester abortions is — it is a new low, even for Rep. Eastman,” Rogers said.
The Department of Health and Social Services “uses the same out-of-state travel policy regardless of what type of medical service is being provided outside of Alaska,” spokeswoman Susan Morgan told Alaska Dispatch News. A state health department report shows 438 of the 1,330 abortions in Alaska in 2015 were paid by the state-federal Medicaid health care program.
Eastman is by no means the first Republican to be criticized for statements about abortion. In the past year, Texas state Rep. Tony Tinderholt said in an interview with the Texas Observer that criminalizing abortions would force women to be “more personally responsible.”
And Oklahoma state Rep. George Faught said that even in pregnancies that result from rape or incest, “God can bring beauty from ashes.”
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