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Alaska Republican Accuses Women of Enjoying Medicaid-Paid Abortion Vacations

Alaska House Minority Leader Charisse Millett watches from the floor on May 10, 2017, in Juneau, Alaska, as Rep. David Eastman, standing, speaks on a motion that he be censured for comments about abortions. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

The Alaska House of Representatives voted 25-14 on Wednesday to censure Rep. David Eastman, a Republican who said some pregnant women get abortions only so they can take Medicaid-funded vacations “to the city.”

“We’ve created an incentive structure where people are now incented to carry their pregnancy longer than they would otherwise and then take part in that when they wouldn’t otherwise be doing it,” Eastman said.

Second-trimester abortions are against the law in Alaska. The closest city where that procedure would be available to them would be Seattle. And even if they don’t go to Seattle, he said, some women – and their families – would jump at the chance to get away from home.

“You have individuals who are in villages and are glad to be pregnant so that they can have an abortion because there’s a free trip to Anchorage involved,” Eastman also told Alaska Public Media a day after making similar comments during an Associated Press interview.

Eastman also said that, although he didn’t have an evidence of it, he had heard that some women who flew to Anchorage for abortions were stranded in the city when they found out Medicaid wouldn’t pay for a flight home.

Alaska House Speaker Bryce Edgmon (D) described Eastman’s comments “as the worst political opportunism” he has seen in more than 20 years.

“I think Eastman’s comments… clearly are racially charged. They’re also the most hurtful and most cruel expressions that I’ve witnessed,” Edgmon told the Alaska Dispatch News. “This is bullshit. It’s not even remotely true.”

Katie Rogers, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands, didn’t brand Eastman’s line of thinking that way. But she called the Republican’s comments “ludicrous and despicable.”

“The process for a woman to get to Seattle to access reproductive healthcare – a full range of reproductive healthcare – is incredibly challenging,” Rogers told Alaska Public Media.

“To even suggest that women are benefiting off the very restrictions that the state has put in place as relates to second-trimester abortions is a new low, even for Rep. Eastman,” Rogers said.

Tuckerman Babcock, chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, told AP calls for censuring Eastman “smacks of thought police.” But he also called for Eastman to apologize.

“I would hate to see him fail to do that because he’s smart and very energetic and taking on a lot of good fights,” Babcock said. “It’s his first term. Everybody makes mistakes, but you need to own up to your mistakes.”

Pamela Samash, president of Right to Life Interior Alaska, had praise for Eastman’s stand against abortion. Smash also said she was offended by women “who use abortion as birth control.”

Still, Eastman has been, let’s say, out of the mainstream – even when one takes into account that he comes from Wasilla, Alaska, the town where former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin ran as mayor before being elected as governor.

Considering he just took office in January, Eastman’s colleagues shouldn’t have been surprised that he stepped to a different drummer on the question of whether Medicaid should pay for abortions.

The 35-year-old freshman lawmaker was the single “no” vote against bills to honor Hmong and  Laotian military veterans who supported America in the Vietnam War. He said that if Alaska was going to honor those soldiers, the legislature should pass a similar resolution honoring Cuban exiles who fought with the CIA in the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion.

Eastman also voted against commemorating the contributions of African-American soldiers.

Judging by his margin of victory in the November election – he captured 73.98 percent of the vote – it is safe to say Eastman began his legislative career with something of a mandate from his constituents.

But political blogger Casey Reynolds called him the “Ted Cruz of the Alaska Legislature” after Eastman, on his first day in office, tried to block the nomination of Edgmon as speaker of the House.

As of May 5, Eastman had ignored all calls for him to apologize. Instead, he demanded a state investigation into the “funding of abortion travel.”

“Many concerns have been brought to my attention – some by constituents and some by those in other districts,” Eastman said in a statement. “And I believe those merit further concern in this body.”

Rogers said Planned Parenthood statistics showed close to 100 women have to travel out of Alaska every year for abortions.

An Alaska Health Department report does not shed any light on whether Medicaid even pays for women to fly out of their hometowns or to Seattle for abortions. It only shows that Medicaid paid for 438 of the 1,330 abortions performed in Alaska in 2015.

“Eastman was stepping on Edgmon’s moment in order to say to the entire House, ‘hey, everyone look at me!’” Reynolds wrote of that day in January when Eastman got in the way of the normal order of things legislative.

“Get used to it,” Reynolds predicted, “that’s going to happen a lot this year.”