Alaska’s constitutional right to an abortion at heart of new podcast, ‘Private Right’

A 50th anniversary copy of the Alaska State Constitution sits on the top of a table.
Once a decade, Alaskans vote on whether to hold a Constitutional Convention to change to state’s founding document. (Valerie Kern/Alaska Public Media)

Alaskans have voted by a wide margin not to hold a constitutional convention, which, among other things, could’ve led to changes to abortion rights.

That’s because in Alaska, there’s a constitutional right to privacy that includes medical procedures like abortions. Unless you change the constitution.

The Alaska Beacon has a new podcast about abortion in Alaska, called Private Right, and just released its second episode. Beacon reporter Lisa Phu is the producer and host.


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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Lisa Phu: You know, abortion is fascinating. It’s a fascinating issue no matter what, but particularly now. This past summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ended the federal constitutional right to abortion, which overturned Roe vs. Wade. When that happened, many people were trying to figure out what that meant for their state. In some states, abortion rights went away. In Alaska, nothing changed. Because the right to have an abortion, as you mentioned, is protected under the Alaska Constitution’s privacy provision. So the issue of abortion in Alaska is really interesting, because we’re a fairly conservative state, but we have this strong constitutional right to choose. So I wanted to explore that. And I wanted to talk to people whose lives have been touched by abortion, people on both sides of the issue. And even though right now, the right to have an abortion is protected, that could change or be weakened. So I wanted to look into those efforts as well.

Casey Grove: So the first episode of Private Right deals with this idea that Alaska could, or some say should, open its constitution to changes by having a convention. And Alaska voters seem to have defeated that pretty soundly in this year’s election. But the right to an abortion in Alaska, that was a big part of this idea of having a constitutional convention, right?

LP: Yeah, I mean, I thought so. So in this first episode, I did a deep dive on the constitutional convention question from the perspective of abortion rights. A lot of people immediately started talking about the question after Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which is when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe. The constitutional convention, and if we’d have one, became a front and center issue. And to better understand why that was, I talked to a longtime Alaska attorney, Susan Orlansky. She has been involved in every major abortion case that made it to the Alaska Supreme Court. And she’s represented abortion rights advocates.

Susan Orlansky: So there’s nothing about the Dobbs decision that undermines the protection of abortion rights in Alaska right now. But it sets the stage for efforts that are possible. Now, that would not have been possible while Roe vs. Wade was alive and well, for people to try to change the Alaska Constitution. And if people were successful in changing the Alaska Constitution, so that it didn’t recognize a right to abortion anymore, then everything about abortion rights in Alaska could change.

LP: So holding a convention would have set the stage for making that kind of change. For the episode, I talked to people who are anti-abortion rights and wanted to have a convention, and people who are pro-abortion rights and didn’t want to see a convention. And I talked to someone who was kind of somewhere in the middle of all of that. So the episode also goes into why the right to have an abortion is protected in the state Constitution. You know, as you mentioned, of course, the ballot measure failed. The majority of people voted no to having a convention. So there’s going to be no convention for now, but the Legislature has the power to call a convention if they want. The Alaska Constitution can also be changed by an amendment process.

CG: OK, gotcha, yeah. So like we said, the second episode of Private Right is out now. And for that one, you talk to an abortion provider, and she has an interesting perspective. Could you tell me about that?

LP: Yeah, I talked to carolyn Brown. She’s lived in Juneau for about 20 years, but in the late 1970s to the late ’80s, carolyn was a gynecologist and obstetrician in Palmer. She delivered thousands of babies, what she was known and praised for. And she also performed abortions, which she was known and praised for, but also vilified. She received hate mail, calls in the middle of the night, air was let out of her tires, people called her baby killer. But she kept doing the work. Around that same time, the Alaska Right to Life (group) had a billboard at their booth at the state fair in Palmer, and some of your listeners might remember seeing this. The sign said, “Does your doctor kill babies?” and, you know, there were a bunch of names listed, including carolyn’s. And so this sign ends up becoming one of the reasons why carolyn and some other doctors sue the Alaska Right to Life for libel. The lawsuit would go on to reach the Alaska Supreme Court, and it ends up touching on principles central to debates over free speech. So it’s really interesting. And carolyn continues to support the right to an abortion. But what was most interesting about carolyn to me was that she faced, and still faces, a level of uncertainty about her role as an abortion provider. You can hear her talk through it a bit.

carolyn Brown: But I never could decide for myself that an egg and a sperm was a person, because a person is a philosophical definition. A sperm and an egg, when they come together, that’s tissue, up to a certain point. And then you’ve got the whole philosophical thing, when does the soul enter the sperm and the egg? I didn’t know. And I still don’t know. But I’ve struggled with that for all of these many, many years.

CG: Yeah, it seems like this podcast is a deep dive on a pretty interesting topic in Alaska. What are your plans for upcoming episodes?

LP: We’re hoping to do three more episodes. I talked to another fascinating woman. She lives in Kasilof. And she’s anti-abortion rights, though she wasn’t always. When I asked her when she changed her mind on that, she said she became anti-abortion pretty much at the moment when she had an abortion. So she spent a great deal of her life fighting against abortion and towards those efforts. I’ve also talked to a number of people in Alaska who’ve had abortions and haven’t regretted it. So I’m hoping to share some of those stories. I also plan to dig into some of the more recent efforts to restrict abortion rights in the Alaska Legislature.

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at Read more about Casey here

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