Sunday, May 7, 2017

On abortion as "a free trip to the city" ... and having the last word

Last week, Alaska state representative David Eastman of Wasilla (a suburb of Anchorage, home of Sarah Palin), commented that some women "try to get pregnant to get a 'free trip to the city' for abortions."  He said this in the context of legislative debate about "abortions being covered by state funds and Medicaid."  Interesting because I'm not aware of any federal funds, which would include Medicaid, being available for abortion, as dictated by the Hyde Amendment.  In Alaska, however, state funds are apparently available, as this additional detail from the AP report explains.
The Alaska Supreme Court has held that the state must fund medically necessary abortions if it funds medically necessary services for others with financial needs.
How progressive of that high court.  This reminds me of one of the most knuckle-headed things a judge ever said about abortion access.
A woman in Alaska, for example, could be required to travel 800 miles to get to an abortion clinic merely because she lives in one place and the nearest abortion clinic is on the other side of the state. But that certainly doesn’t constitute anything even approaching an undue burden.
Interestingly, the judge who said this was Dee Benson (now a senior judge), and the case was Utah Women's Clinic v. Leavitt, 844 F. Supp. 1482 (D. Utah 1994) (discussed here).  Why the Utah judge thought it appropriate or necessary to use an example from Alaska is beyond me, but maybe he was looking for the most extreme example of distance he could find.  Given that Alaska is the largest state in terms of land area, Judge Benson necessarily turned to "The Last Frontier." In light of that point, it is perhaps significant that the second largest state, Texas, became the subject of the latest round of litigation over abortion restrictions, and that distance ultimately loomed so large in relation to the Supreme Court's assessment of the undue burden standard. Read more here and here.   

Speaking of distance and undue burdens also reminds me of a recent exchange between Prof. Carol Sanger of  Columbia Law and me regarding abortion and the significance of spatiality/geography/rurality regarding abortion access.  This is, of course, a topic I've been writing about for nearly a decade.  In the end, Sanger agrees that my plea for attention to rural women should be "the last word" in the exchange over Sanger's new book, About Abortion:  Terminating Pregnancy in the 21st Century, which says very little about the geography issue  (Sanger's "last word" phrasing is especially pleasing to me because my mother's nickname for me was "last word Lisa," an identity that may well have put me on the path to law school).

Sanger also includes some really interesting data on military women, who don't choose to be "rural," but who are assigned to bases in nonmetropolitan (or small metropolitan) places without ready access to abortion.  Sanger writes:
An amici brief,filed in Whole Woman’s Health on behalf of the Service Service Women’s Action Network And Retired Or Former Military Officers, explained that “the entire western half of the [Texas], covering over 130,000 square miles—in which five large military bases are located—would lack any abortion care providers at all.” If HB2 had remained in effect, the brief noted that service women at Goodfellow Air Force Base [San Angelo] would have a three hour drive to San Antonio, 199 miles away, and this is without the added difficulties of obtaining a pass, arranging a timely appointment, and finding the funds.
It's a sub-issue I had not not thought about amidst the many pages of my writing about spatiality in relation to abortion access.  But then I don't tend to think of military bases as "rural," located as they often are in small cities, in smaller metropolitan areas.  But when we look at what happened under Texas H.B. 2, women in places like Killeen (population about 150K)/Fort Hood certainly suffered serious detriments.  The sole abortion provider in Killeen closed after the Texas H.B. 2 admitting privileges requirement went into effect, a few months after the law's passage in 2013.  That closure left women on that massive Army base--the largest in the world in land area--forced to travel to either Austin or Dallas for abortion services.

But let me return to the issues raised by Eastman in Alaska, which are less about the burden of distance--which the state of Alaska has pragmatically taken care of--and more about the character of women.  The AP story, by Becky Bohrer, includes more helpful background for us on abortion availability in Alaska and--for late-term abortions--in Seattle, Washington.

First, here is more of what Eastman said:
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.
Then Bohrer tells us more about the furor Eastman's comments have generated:
Eastman, who is a member of the House minority, made similar comments to another media outlet later.

In a speech on the House floor Friday, Democratic Rep. Neal Foster of Nome said Eastman’s comments were unacceptable and said he hoped Eastman would apologize.

“It shocks the conscience to think that a female in a village would want to endure the physical and the emotional pain of getting an abortion just so that they could get a free trip to Anchorage,” Foster said.

Most of the women who live in villages that Foster represents are Alaska Native and feel Eastman’s comments were directed toward them, Foster said. Many Alaska communities are not connected to a road system and smaller communities often have limited health services that necessitate travel to larger communities for care.

When asked if he felt he had anything he need to apologize for, Eastman said he would be glad to speak with Foster and “understand exactly what he’s getting at.”

Following the floor session, the House majority caucus distributed a letter to Eastman signed by Foster, House Speaker Bryce Edgmon and two other rural lawmakers, demanding a public apology. Rep. Geran Tarr, an Anchorage Democrat, said she may seek a motion to censure Eastman. She called Eastman’s comments “deeply offensive, racist in nature and misogynistic.”
Great to see other state legislators standing up for Alaska Natives and other rural populations.  That is encouraging.  And it also brings me to the really outrageous part of what Eastman said--that women might purposefully get pregnant so that they can have a day out on the town, a freebie trip to a place where they can get an abortion ... and then tie on some shopping or a fancy meal, maybe even a jaunt up the Space Needle.

This brings me back to Sanger's over-arching point in her new book:  women take abortion seriously--and we should presume they can make good decisions about it for themselves.  We should therefore not presume--as Eastman suggests--that they will get pregnant willy-nilly to "earn" a frolic in the city.  Insulting, misogynist and racist, indeed.


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