Here’s where the candidates for governor stand on abortion

Gubernatorial candidates Mike Dunleavy, Bill Walker and Mark Begich introduce themselves at a Juneau Chamber of Commerce forum on Sept. 6. The candidates differ over abortion. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Legal experts have said the right for women to have an abortion is firmly protected by the Alaska Constitution. But it’s become an issue in the election for governor, and the candidates have different ideas about it.

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Gov. Bill Walker recently wrote a commentary for the Anchorage Daily News saying that while he’s pro-life, he would veto legislation seeking to restrict abortions.

“My personal views haven’t changed but I will not put my personal views in front of the constitution, which is extremely clear,” Walker said. “Alaska has one of the strongest constitutions on, you know, personal, individual rights, which includes a woman’s reproductive rights, so that will remain unchanged in our administration.”

Walker, who’s an independent, said he supports other steps that he considers to be pro-life, like supporting access to birth control and health care.

“And that’s why did what I did to accept Medicaid expansion,” Walker said. “I knew I was going to be sued by some in the Legislature. I was, in the Senate majority. We prevailed in that litigation and, today, 44,000 Alaskans have that coverage.”

Walker said he would veto any bill restricting abortions. He expects the attorney general would advise him that it’s unconstitutional. But while the governor doesn’t have a formal role in amending the constitution, he’s also skeptical of changing the constitution to restrict abortions.

“I’d have to see the amendment,” Walker said. “I didn’t run for governor, I’m not in this office to change anything (from) the way it is today. And so, I can’t anticipate, you know, what an amendment would look like. If it restricted it, I would not be in favor. … That issue, I’m not going to address that as governor, because I think it’s well-settled.”

Former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich is the Democratic candidate. He said abortion rights are an issue this year.

“I can tell you that I hear about it a lot,” Begich said. “I’m the only candidate that’s been endorsed by Planned Parenthood, the only candidate that has a 100 percent record when it comes to pro-choice issues and women’s reproductive rights and I think it will be an issue that women and men care about.”

Begich acknowledged that the state constitution protects the right to an abortion. But he said the Legislature can take other steps.

“They’ll whittle away in a way that your right won’t touch the constitutionality, but will do other things,” Begich said.

Begich cited a law Walker chose not to veto that allows school districts to prevent Planned Parenthood from providing sex education. And the Walker administration has defended another abortion-related law facing a legal challenge. This law makes it more difficult for Medicaid recipients to receive coverage for abortions. The legal challenge remains in court.

And Begich said it’s important for the Alaska governor to push back against any steps taking by the federal government to restrict abortions.

“Even if we protect our right constitutionally to women’s reproductive rights, we need to make sure the government on the federal end isn’t passing some regulation that limits or restricts health care for women – and the governor has to be on the front line, pushing back everywhere you can,” Begich said.

Republican candidate and former state Sen. Mike Dunleavy said in an interview last month he doesn’t expect Alaska’s abortion law to be affected by President Donald Trump’s current choice for U.S. Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh.

“The nomination of Kavanaugh, I don’t think is going to change this dynamic,” Dunleavy said. “I could be wrong but I’d be surprised if it did.”

On a personal level, Dunleavy considers himself to be pro-life, including opposing abortion in cases of rape and incest.

“The question for me is: Should an innocent human being, should their life be ended because of circumstances?” Dunleavy said. “I struggle with that. I really do struggle with that. I don’t think a person’s life should be ended, an innocent human being’s life should be ended, just because of the circumstances by which they were conceived or they are being carried to term.”

Governors in other states have reshaped how state constitutions are interpreted through their choices of state supreme court justices. But in Alaska, the process for selecting judges limits the governor’s choices.