By Jenny Neyman
In the last 40 years, a lot has changed in the abortion debate. The specific issues being argued have gone through different iterations, the battlefields have cropped up in various states, the players at the forefront have retired, passed the baton or even switched sides. Even the lexicon of the discussion has changed, as with Planned Parenthood recently announcing that it would no longer use the term “pro-choice.”
Yet, some things have remained very much the same. First and foremost, the U.S. Supreme Court landmark decision in Roe v. Wade on Jan. 22, 1973, still stands, dictating that a women’s right to privacy under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment extends to a woman’s decision to have an abortion, trumping states’ decisions on the matter.
And another thing that hasn’t changed is that abortion is still very much a current events issue.
On Jan. 22, Bob Bird, of Nikiski, stood on a busy street corner in Kenai waving anti-abortion signs, as he has done every anniversary of the Roe decision since 1984. Some years it’s at the “Y” intersection in Soldotna. Others, like this year, he and fellow abortion protestors tromped back and forth through the slushy snow at the intersection of the Kenai Spur Highway and Bridge Access Road, chosen for its high volume of traffic on a weekday afternoon, and also because of its proximity to the office of the only doctor on the central Kenai Peninsula who performs medical abortion procedures.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” said Bird, a social studies teacher at Nikiski Middle-High School and former candidate for the U.S. Senate. He plans to continue protesting until change comes.
Though he notes that some change has already come, he said, pointing to the Jan. 14, 2013, cover story of Time magazine, with the headline, “40 years ago, abortion-rights activists won an epic victory with Roe v. Wade. They’ve been losing ever since.”
“The abortion rate has gone down, the influence of Planned Parenthood has come down, even the pro-choice movement wants to switch slogans,” Bird said. “So I think, like (Winston) Churchill said, ‘This is not the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning.’”
Bird comes at his stance against abortion from his religious and moral beliefs, but his most vocal platform against Roe is one of opposition to “overreaching federal authority,” he said. Bird is an active supporter of nullification — the stance that a state has the right to nullify federal laws that the state deems unconstitutional. Abortion, Bird said, falls in that category, and he believes that the federal government has no business legislating social issues, particularly over the top of states’ right to do so.
“At some point I think enough people have realized abortions didn’t solve the problems. The courts didn’t end the controversy. Social issues should be handled on a state-by-state basis,” Bird said.
There’s no foretelling what Alaska would decide were that authority left up to states. On one hand, abortion was legal in Alaska before Roe. On the other, recent legal action has installed roadblocks to access to abortion, such as the parental notification ballot initiative that requires at least one parent to be notified before a minor child can obtain an abortion, or else for a judge to bypass the requirement in certain circumstances. The law went into effect in 2010 and was upheld by an Alaska Superior Court judge in 2012.
“I think it’s best left to the local level,” Bird said. “I have faith that whatever Alaska decides will be different than what Roe versus Wade permits.”
He also has faith that the debate is changing. For one thing, people’s stomach for partial-birth abortions has turned, and the anti-abortion camp is diversifying, still holding the religiously and socially conservative, as well as people who oppose abortion for legal, political or civil rights arguments. It used to be that the anti-abortionists often were charged with not caring about the babies or mothers and what their lives would be like once forced into birth, but that’s less and less the case, Bird said.And Bird said that he sees the nature of feminism changing — no longer is it the movement of the 1960s and ’70s, which so vehemently pushed for abortion rights. Bird said that he sees the younger generation of women being more like what he calls “the original feminists” of the country’s youth.
“The new generation is looking like the original feminism,” Bird said. “Susan B. Anthony — I love having her on the dollar. She denounced abortion as a way for men to degrade women. I think this generation of young people, whether they are religious or not, are not the ’60s and ’70s women. I think they’re the ones who realize, ‘My goodness, I’m lucky I didn’t get aborted.’”
The others joining Bird were there for various reasons. Laura Burke’s 10 kids helping hold anti-abortion signs were a direct underscore to her belief in the sanctity of human life.
Dr. Steve Hileman, an ER doctor at Central Peninsula Hospital, said that, for him, abortion is a civil rights issue, and a difficult one, at that.
“It’s a hard issue. I’m a doctor, I take care of people who face this all the time. I try not to be judgmental, but I think it’s important that people take a stand for what’s right,” Hileman said.
He said that he thinks the nature of the debate has changed over the years, with more room for discussion, rather than diatribes.
“I’d like to think that people are more willing to discuss it without being angry about it. I’m not sure that I see any legal solution to it, but I don’t think conversion is an external that can be directed by law, either way. So I’m mostly here just because I want people to think about it. It’s a matter of conscience,” he said.
For Nancy Whiting, of Nikiski, the issue is moral as well as political.
“I believe that life begins at conception. It’s been shown that a baby’s heartbeat begins just a few weeks after conception, and so I view abortion as killing a life,” she said. “And I agree with Bob that the federal government and the Supreme Court don’t have the constitutional right to interfere with social issues. The people have the right to decide, and the states have the rights after that. The federal government really has very few rights, and I think they’ve overstepped into a lot of areas that are not their business.
“I feel very strongly about life and liberty and to pursue happiness. I believe in the Constitution. And it begins with life. I think this abortion issue has to do with the value of life, and when we don’t value life and when our children are raised in a society that doesn’t value life from the beginning, I think that’s causing a lot of societal ills,” Whiting said.
At the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Soldotna on Jan. 28, representatives of Planned Parenthood and about 15 members of the public on the other side of the abortion issue gathered for an open house to discuss how Planned Parenthood is dealing with a spate of societal ills in Alaska — education and treatment in the realms of reproductory health and family planning for people who otherwise might lack access to such care, because of their age, low income and/or location in a rural setting with limited available resources.
“We do a huge amount of contraception, a huge amount of sexually transmitted disease screening and treatment, obviously a lot of reassurance and interaction with people on the educational front, and we’re excited about all that,” said Chris Charbonneau, CEO Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, visiting the Soldotna clinic’s open house from Seattle. “At the end of the day I consider our first job to be preventing anything bad from happening. And as a secondary matter we want to be sure that if something bad does happen — there’s a disease, there’s an unintended pregnancy, that we are the careful hands that people put themselves in in order to make sure that gets sorted out for them and they go on to lead their best lives.”
The Soldotna clinic was welcoming its new nurse practitioner, shared with Anchorage, Morghan Holt Stenson, who sees patients in Soldotna on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays every other week. And when Stenson isn’t physically in the Soldotna clinic, patients can still reach her via a secured Internet connection in a service called telemedicine. Nothing requiring a physical examination can be done over the Skype-type connection, but patients can get modifications or extensions of birth control, some STD screenings and other services not requiring an exam.
“It allows for better access to care and better comprehensive care while utilizing time, I think, more effectively. Telemedicine has made it possible to streamline visits and make that a little bit faster so people aren’t waiting as long for some of the visits that don’t require direct contact from a provider,” Stenson said.
The Planned Parenthood clinic has been in its East Redoubt location for about 15 years, and has been operating in Soldotna for about 20. Abortions are not performed at the clinic. It does provide a myriad of family planning and reproductive health services, such as pap smears, breast exams and STD screenings, to people — males, too — who might otherwise have a difficult time accessing those services, because of a lack of income or insurance coverage, or because they are under 18.
“The majority of us (active in establishing the clinic) felt that we didn’t just want to focus on that one issue (abortion). That it was so important to provide rounded health care for women young and old,” said Peggy Mullen, of Soldotna. “… You have done a marvelous job here for years.”
But it hasn’t been without difficulty. As the previous week’s anti-abortion protest in Kenai attests to — including signs specifically mentioning Planned Parenthood — not everyone in the area is as supportive as the community members at the open house. That might be part of the reason why it has, at times, been a challenge for the clinic to attract and retain nurse practitioners.
“You’re going to get some looks. They come and they think they’re really doing good things, but there’s other people in this town that see Planned Parenthood as the enemy, and it’s not maybe such a good place to work. So you have to know that and feel proud of it,” said Dr. Michael Merrick, a family practice physician in Kenai, who performs abortion procedures.
Charbonneau spoke about Alaska’s dichotomy in the abortion debate. Abortion was already legal here before Roe, yet she said that the current governmental administration, in particular, has been chipping away at the issue.
“I’ve never been in a place where people are so terrified of the governor. Even though this is not the broadest definition of a governor’s powers that I’ve ever seen, this is a governor that takes a very personal interest in certain kinds of things, and Gov. (Sean) Parnell is the only person I know who’s ever made sure that all the children in their state did not have insurance for fear that somebody might use it for abortion services when they vetoed Denali KidCare,” she said. (Parnell in 2010 vetoed nearly $3 million intended to cover more Alaskans under Denali KidCare, for fear some money might fund abortions. The veto did not apply to existing funding.)
“I thought that was the most morally vacant thing I’d ever seen anybody in politics do. But every now and then he even trumps that. I can’t tell you how many people have said, ‘Well, I would do this because I feel that I should as a public health official in Alaska, but Gov. Parnell’s going to have me fired.’ The depth to which he has terrorized anybody out of doing smart things is pretty crazy,” Charbonneau said.
The parental notification law for minors seeking an abortion was an effort to restrict access to abortions, but Charbonneau and Merrick said that neither is aware of any cases where the law actually prevented a procedure.
“We haven’t had a single judge turn down an application (to bypass the notification stipulation). It was just an attempt by our opposition to make this more complicated, make it expensive for Dr. Merrick, make it expensive for us or anyone helping these young women. It’s one of these series of things that get thrown up in the way to make things more difficult,” Charbonneau said.
Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, made a statement Jan. 22 that he plans to introduce legislation that would define when an abortion is “medically necessary.” The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled that the state must fund medically necessary abortions — through Medicaid and Denali KidCare — if it funds other procedures deemed medically necessary for people in need.
It’s another attempt at a roadblock, Charbonneau said. But she said that she remains positive about the future of access to abortions, both on the national level with a Democrat in the presidency — “who will not appoint anyone to the Supreme Court that will allow Roe to be overturned,” she said — and in Alaska.
“Constitutional protections in Alaska are fantastic. There is tremendous basis here for defending individual liberties,” she said.
Still, to abortion supporters, 40 years of debating the same issues can get wearying, especially in a state that places such emphasis on privacy and personal liberties. “It blows my mind that people talk about Sharia law and the Taliban and this is our version — we have our version. It’s the Coghills of the world. They don’t understand that they bring that same fundamentalist, anti-women mode. They make no connection,” Mullen said. “But we’re very lucky to be women in Alaska.”