Rep. Kevin McCabe, R-Big Lake, speaks March 20, 2023, on the floor of the Alaska House. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Rep. Kevin McCabe, R-Big Lake, speaks March 20, 2023, on the floor of the Alaska House. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Proposal to define a fetus as a person in Alaska’s criminal code faces pushback

Opponents testified that the bill would threaten Alaskans’ abortion rights

An Alaska House member has proposed a bill that seeks to establish definitions of “life” and “person” in criminal law, prompting dozens of Alaskans to testify against it, saying it would unconstitutionally limit abortions in the state.

Rep. Kevin McCabe, R-Big Lake, said his bill is “simply my attempt to define life for the statute” and “ensure fair treatment and protection for all individuals including those yet to be born.”

He said the bill would define a fetus as a person.

Alaska is one of more than a dozen states considering what advocates call fetal “personhood” laws. Several states have laws that grant personhood rights to fetuses, including Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. In some states, they have been used to jail women.

The trend has raised concern for criminal defense attorneys. A 2021 report from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said personhood laws “contribute to the already dangerous trend of criminalizing pregnancy” because they can “dramatically alter the scope of criminal liability.”

The House Judiciary Committee is considering the measure, House Bill 107. In a committee hearing, Rep. Cliff Groh, D-Anchorage, asked if doctors who provided abortions could be prosecuted for murder if the bill became law.

Abortions are protected in Alaska’s constitution. But John Skidmore, the deputy attorney general for the criminal division of the Department of Law, said the change would allow the department to file criminal charges for abortion, even though courts would likely find that use of the law unconstitutional.

McCabe said that was “not the intent of the bill” and that currently in Alaska the decision to have an abortion is between a doctor and a woman. “It’s not the intent of this bill to send the stormtroopers into an abortionist’s office or a doctor that had to perform an abortion for one reason or another,” he said.

Groh was also curious about the implications for in vitro fertilization, or IVF, a technique used to help people with fertility issues to have a baby. It involves fertilizing an egg outside the body and then surgically implanting the embryo in the womb.

In other states, anti-abortion laws that define fetuses and embryos as people and give them personhood rights have complicated IVF access. Embryos cannot be intentionally destroyed in Louisiana and after a recent court decision in Alabama, doctors there have stopped offering the treatment for fear that they could be criminally prosecuted.

More than 60 Alaskans who called in to the House Judiciary Committee to oppose the bill were not convinced it would leave their rights untouched. One person testified in favor of the bill.

Dezarae Arrowsun, a board member for the Juneau Pro-Choice Coalition, said the bill could be used to criminalize doctors for performing abortions. “This is obviously a backdoor attempt to overturn our rights, as protected in the Alaska Constitution, to obtain a legal abortion,” she said.

Emma Wilson from Anchorage said the bill could endanger the lives of pregnant people seeking life-saving care. “As an Alaskan with the ability to fall pregnant, this bill threatens my liberties and this bill threatens my life,” she said.

A number of other testifiers recounted how abortion was considered life saving care for them due to medical issues such as pregnancies that came too soon after cesarean sections. One OB-GYN, Meagan Byrne, said the bill could have a chilling effect on doctors. “Physicians will be afraid of legal repercussions if we perform life- saving measures,” she said, citing care for ectopic pregnancies or hemorrhaging.

Michael Garvey, the advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska called the bill “wildly unconstitutional” and said its vague language would throw courts into chaos.

Rep. Sarah Vance, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, thanked people for their testimony and said the committee would further consider the bill. “I look forward to delving into the science that defines life. I believe this is an important topic for this committee to address,” she said.

Vance sponsored anti-abortion legislation in 2020, which was never heard in committee. She was a member of the minority caucus at the time.

• Claire Stremple is a reporter based in Juneau who got her start in public radio at KHNS in Haines, and then on the health and environment beat at KTOO in Juneau. This article originally appeared online at Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.

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