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My turn: Alaska senators face a moment of truth on Alito

Posted: Friday, January 20, 2006

Sen. Ted Stevens and Sen. Lisa Murkowski are currently faced with a vote in the U.S. Senate that will forever define them and will chart the nation's course for a generation. Judge Samuel Alito Jr.'s senate confirmation hearings finished last week; the New Jersey judge will soon face a vote of the full senate.

For three days, Judge Alito was grilled on a variety of issues, including a woman's right to choose. Time and again, Judge Alito refused to call Roe v. Wade "settled law." Even conservative John Roberts, recently confirmed as the court's chief justice, agreed that Roe was the settled law of the land. Alito did, however, agree that many other decisions are settled law. It's difficult to interpret this as anything other than Alito's intention to overturn Roe, if given the opportunity.

Judge Alito's belief that the government is more qualified to give medical advice to a woman than her physician is nothing new. When he was a government lawyer, Judge Alito stated that he was "particularly proud" of his legal work arguing that the Constitution did not guarantee the right to an abortion.

Judge Alito's record on opposing a woman's right to choose and right to privacy is clear. Equally clear is the support Alito has received from the anti-choice community. What is less clear is how Alaska's two senators could justify elevating Alito to the Supreme Court where he will almost surely wait for his chance to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Both of Alaska's senators have, at one time or another, professed to be pro-choice. Sen. Stevens is often characterized by the news media as one of a few "pro-choice Republicans." In 1995, the Anchorage Daily News wrote that "Sen. Stevens has a long, pro-choice record that dissents from his party's center." In 2004, the Daily News called Sen. Murkowski a legislator who "had spoken and voted for abortion rights."

In May of 2002 on the floor of the Alaska House, sounding solidly pro-choice, then-Rep. Lisa Murkowski voiced her intent to vote against limiting state funding for abortions for poor women in Alaska. In an impassioned speech, she said, "I'm going to stand up for the Constitution and I'm going to stand up for the women of the state of Alaska and I'm going to vote no."

In March of 2003, Sen. Murkowski and Sen. Stevens both voted in favor of a bill that reaffirmed the Supreme Court's decision legalizing abortion, recognizing that Roe v. Wade was correct and should not be overturned. Stevens cast a nearly identical vote in 1999. During her 2004 Senate campaign, Murkowski vigorously pursued the endorsement of Alaska Right to Life. But even a personal visit to Alaska from the anti-choice movement's flagship senator, Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum, couldn't secure the endorsement for Murkowski.

In the short time since she was appointed to the Senate by her father, Sen. Murkowski has managed to vote in lock-step with her party leadership over 90 percent of the time. Sen. Stevens' record is a great deal longer, but more difficult to pin down as being so unabashedly partisan.

There was a time when both Sen. Stevens and Sen. Murkowski were in favor of protecting the personal liberties and privacy rights of Alaskans, particularly the painful decisions women have to make about terminating pregnancies. As Alaskans, they understand the importance of personal liberties against a federal government that is relentlessly trying to encroach on our right to privacy - be it our guns, our library books, or a medical decision made between our family, our doctor and our God.

Sens. Stevens' and Murkowski's credentials as pro-choice, anti-government-intrusion Republicans are at stake as the Alito vote draws near. If they vote "no," they should be commended for sticking by their stated principles. If Sen. Murkowski votes to confirm Alito, it is fair to interpret her vote as one against a woman's right to privacy and one she should have to explain to Alaska voters in 2010. If Sen. Stevens votes in favor of Alito, it will confirm many Alaskans' suspicions that he has finally lost his way in Washington and it might be time for him to come home.

• Karen Max Kelly is chairwoman of the Juneau Pro-Choice Coalition. Juneau resident Marina Lindsey is a board member of Planned Parenthood of Alaska.



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