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Legislative action on abortion makes way for issue to take larger role in U. S. Senate race

On the heels of several anti-choice votes in the Alaska state Legislature, Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund have launched a campaign to educate voters about candidates’ positions on women’s health issues. The campaign, the organization said, will be modeled on campaigns waged in the lower 48 that have brought attention to women’s health issues and have helped get pro-choice candidates elected.

Not only will the campaign target state lawmakers, it will also focus on the upcoming U.S. Senate race in Alaska, which Planned Parenthood has named as one of its “top electoral priorities.”

This past week, the House Finance Committee passed a bill that limits state funded abortions for poor women. It also stripped money for family planning for poor women, 90 percent of which would have been paid for by the federal government. Sen. John Coghill, a conservative from Fairbanks who has long been fighting to end abortion, said that he didn’t support the family planning money because that money would make its way to Planned Parenthood, which supports “population control” rather than family planning.

Until 2013, abortion and other social issues had for years taken a back seat in the Legislature, mostly because the majority in the Senate was bipartisan and the predominant issue was oil taxes. That’s changed since the last election, when two Democrats lost their seats and the majority turned Republican.

This legislative session, Republicans have also been holding hearings on how the state chooses its judges, and whether or not to change the state’s constitution to allow for school choice, all of which have been on the agenda of social conservatives in Alaska for years, and all of which, when mixed with abortion, will provide fodder for Planned Parenthood to label those conservatives as extremists who are “waging a war on women,” a phrase that’s been used successfully in political races across the country.

The Legislature’s actions on abortion have also opened the door to make the issue a larger one in the upcoming U.S. Senate than it likely would have otherwise been.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich has been consistently pro-choice and hasn’t shied away from saying so. Three Republicans—Joe Miller, Dan Sullivan and Mead Treadwell—are vying for the Republican nomination. Miller is considered the more conservative among the three, but Treadwell has been running as the “pro-life leader.” Sullivan, who is Catholic, says he’s pro-life but has kept the issue on the sidelines.

Sullivan’s silence on abortion, however, will continually get more difficult as Planned Parenthood and other groups press the issue.

Indeed, it appears that the state is more pro-choice than the state’s Legislature’s actions would suggest. A 2009 poll was the last big one that I could find on how Alaskans feel on the issue. In that poll, Celinda Lake, who is Sen. Mark Begich’s pollster, was hired by Planned Parenthood to poll 675 likely registered voters in the state. The poll found that 58 percent of Alaskans could be categorized as pro-choice, while only 37 percent could be classified as pro-life. (The full findings are below, as are the definitions of pro-life and pro-choice.) These numbers appear to be in the ballpark of current opinion, according to local pollsters.

Women also vote in greater numbers than do men. About 257,000 men were registered to vote in Alaska’s 2012 general election. Only 147,588 voted. In that same election, about 248,000 women were registered to vote and 152,075 did so.

Here’s the full findings from the Planned Parenthood poll:

  • Abortions should be legal and generally available and subject to only limited regulation: 28%
  • Regulation of abortion is necessary, although it should remain legal in many circumstances: 30%
  • Abortion should be legal only in the most extreme cases, such as to save the life of the woman or in cases of rape and incest: 28%
  • All abortions should be made illegal: 8%
  • Don’t know: 5%

Contact Amanda Coyne at amandamcoyne@yahoo.com