Alaska state lawmaker censured over abortion comment

The Alaska House voted Wednesday to censure a Republican member over comments he made suggesting there are women in Alaska who try to get pregnant to get a "free trip to the city" for abortions.

The House voted 25-14 to take the highly unusual step of censure after hours of debate, during which Rep. David Eastman of Wasilla — who referred to himself as the "least politically correct legislator in our state" — said he was sorry he made the comments.

"And certainly if I could go back and not say them, I would do so," he said. He later asked for forgiveness from anyone he had hurt.

Eastman, a first-term, conservative lawmaker who has developed a reputation for being outspoken in his beliefs, set off the firestorm last week in discussing his concerns about the use of state funds and Medicaid for abortions.

In an interview with The Associated Press on May 2, Eastman said there are not many places "where you have the kinds of incentives for abortion that we have in this state."

"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," he said.

Eastman made similar comments later to a public radio reporter.

House members in both parties demanded he apologize, and his comments were widely condemned.

On Tuesday, leaders of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska called for Eastman's censure in a release that referred to his comments as "racially-charged and misogynistic." Many Alaska Natives live in rural communities, where health services are limited and travel often is needed to access care in larger communities.

During floor debate Wednesday, legislators expressed disgust with Eastman's comments. Some said they had hoped to hear a sincere apology from Eastman but did not feel they had.

"I was looking for that short, specific, sincere, unqualified apology and it didn't happen," said Republican Rep. Chuck Kopp of Anchorage. "It drifted into political messaging."

During his comments, Eastman said he believes we will not make progress as a state or be able to solve some of the state's biggest problems "if we do not protect the right to talk about them, even imperfectly."

But there were concerns, voiced by Kopp and others, that the House might be setting precedent in formally rebuking someone for something they said — particularly comments that are made away from the floor or outside of committee hearings.

Research conducted by the Legislative Reference Library found the last time a lawmaker was censured by a branch of the Legislature was in 1994. That case involved a senator. The research did not indicate any prior legislative censures of a House member.

Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, an Anchorage Democrat who brought the motion to censure, said elected officials are supposed to be exemplars in their community — "not the bare minimum" — and setting an example.

She said Alaskans are looking to the House for leadership.

"We can say his words were unacceptable but if we don't formally do something, that's tacit approval. And tacit approval is the way that sexism and racism has continued for a very long time and it is unacceptable," she said.