Both sides of abortion debate in Alaska look to constitutional convention vote

With last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, reproductive rights advocates in Alaska are encouraging voters to vote no on a constitutional convention during the general election this November, while abortion opponents are encouraging voters to vote yes.

The right to have an abortion in Alaska is protected through the state constitution’s provision on privacy, as recognized by the Alaska Supreme Court in 1997. This November, voters will be asked whether or not to call a constitutional convention, which would pave the way for changing the constitution and potentially taking away that protection for abortion.

Nancy Courtney is a board member of Juneau Pro-Choice Coalition, which organized a June 25 rally in the capital city. She said voting no on the constitutional convention in the November general election is included in its fundraising letter to supporters.

“That’s one of the biggest fears that we have is that it’s going to open up Pandora’s box if we have a constitutional convention,” Courtney said.

Opponents of a constitutional convention also argue it is the wrong time — with so much political divisiveness — to attempt a rewrite of the state constitution.

In 2021, Palmer Sen. Shelley Hughes sponsored Senate Joint Resolution 4, which proposed an amendment to the Alaska Constitution relating to abortion.

The resolution would’ve amended the constitution to add a new section: “To protect human life, nothing in this constitution may be construed to secure or protect a right to an abortion or require the state to fund an abortion.”

It passed out of two committee and didn’t go any further. It never made it to the Senate or House floors to get the two-thirds votes needed to get on a statewide election ballot.

The legislative effort is the language that Jim Minnery wants to see taken up during a constitutional convention.

Minnery is a president of Alaska Family Action, a nonprofit Christian public policy organization. He said the court’s interpretation of the state constitution was wrong.

The Alaska Supreme Court in 1997 recognized that “reproductive rights are fundamental, and that they are encompassed within the right to privacy expressed in Article 1, Section 22 of the Alaska Constitution … These fundamental reproductive rights include the right to an abortion.”

Minnery said, “We believe firmly that the Supreme Court of Alaska interpreted the privacy clause in a manner that wasn’t at all meant by the founding fathers when they put the privacy clause in there, (which) has absolutely nothing to do with abortion.”

In addition to protecting “innocent, pre-born lives,” Minnery wants a constitutional convention because he supports reforming the judicial selection process to be more like the federal system.

“The governor should have the ability to be able to appoint people who are aligned with their belief system and how they believe jurisprudence should be carried out,” he said.

Currently, when appointing justices to the Alaska Supreme Court, the governor must choose from a list of two or more nominees compiled by the Alaska Judicial Council. The Alaska Judicial Council is an independent state commission.

Every 10 years, the state constitution requires that voters decide: “Shall there be a Constitutional Convention?” Alaskans have rejected the ballot measure every decade, often by a 2-to-1 margin.

Voters will be asked the question during the upcoming general election in November. If the majority votes yes, what comes next is a multi-year process, Josh Applebee with the lieutenant governor’s office said.

“The process could take as long as four-plus years or, depending on the Legislature, it could be as short as, say, two years,” Applebee said. The Legislature would be responsible for outlining the delegate selection process.

According to the constitution, “delegates to the convention shall be chosen at the next regular statewide election, unless the legislature provides for the election of the delegates at a special election.”

The next regular statewide election after this November isn’t until the primary election in August 2024.

Once delegates are selected, the convention would be held. After the convention takes place, amendments or revisions to the constitution must be ratified by voters in another election.

The is a donor-funded independent news organization in Alaska.


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