Abortion has generally been a sleeper issue in local politics since 1970, when Hawaii became the first state in the nation to make abortion legal. But the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade has raised the possibility that the governor’s race this year could become a kind of local referendum on the matter.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Josh Green and Republican former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona are lined up on opposite sides of the abortion issue, and some longtime veteran campaigners are convinced that in heavily Democratic Hawaii, that split works in Green’s favor.

Green has not floated any abortion-related political advertising yet, but he underscored his views on the issue last month with an announcement that he will issue an executive order on his first day in office to try to ensure women have access to abortions.

“It is one of the most important issues nationally, and it’s one of the most important locally because in every state, half the population are women for one thing, and in every state all the men have women in their lives,” Green said in an interview last week. “I’m saying the obvious, but it’s super important, and it’s important to me and our team.”

“It’s one of the most important issues, and it’s not just a social issue, it’s a practical health care issue,” he said. “I’m absolutely committed to protecting women’s health care rights, 100%.”

2022 HNN Debate Gubernatorial candidate Josh Green debates Vicky Cayetano and Kai Kahele at the Sheraton Hotel.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green says the issue of abortion rights is central to the governor’s race this year. He points out the next governor will appoint state Supreme Court justices, the state Attorney General and the director of the Department of Health. Each of them will influence reproductive rights issues, Green said. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Aiona scoffed at Green’s plans for an executive order, saying it would accomplish nothing. Hawaii already has a law on the books that makes abortion legal here, and that state law won’t change anytime soon. Only the Legislature can change it, and the Legislature is dominated by Democrats who favor abortion rights, and most voters know that, he said.

“I have nothing to do with this,” Aiona said. “If elected as governor, I can’t change that law, and neither could Josh if he became governor, and neither can the judiciary. The only body in government who can change that law is the legislative branch and I think people realize that, they understand that.”

A National Issue

The abortion issue roared back as a top-tier national political issue this year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in a case known as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. That decision declared that states have the power to regulate abortion.

The Dobbs ruling on June 24 effectively reversed the court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which had held that state laws that unduly restricted abortion were unconstitutional. Conservative legislatures in many states quickly took up bills to sharply restrict or ban abortion in the wake of the Dobbs decision.

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Aiona doubts the abortion issue will have much impact on the Hawaii governor’s race because voters here are far more concerned with other problems. The main issues that worry most people here are housing, cost of living, inflation, the possibility of a recession and crime, he said.

“It might have an impact on his base, the progressives and his party, but other than that I think people realize where we are in regards to this issue — if it is an issue. I don’t think it’s an issue. They know what the state of the law is in Hawaii in regards to abortion. Nothing has changed, everything remains the same.”

But Green argues that “protecting women’s health care rights is one of the most important parts of the governor’s job.”

The next governor will appoint at least three state Supreme Court justices as well as the state Attorney General and the director of the state Department of Health, who will set state health care policy, he says.

He suggests other states that restrict abortion may decide to sue or even file criminal charges against abortion providers in other states such as Hawaii, and “attorneys general in other states are going to have to make sure we stand our ground.”

If other states attempt to revoke the licenses of abortion providers in Hawaii, the Green campaign said his planned executive order would “preserve their status in Hawaii.”

Aiona says those scenarios are “nothing more than fear mongering, and the reason why I’m running is, that kind of stuff has got to stop. So I wish he would stop doing that and stick to the issues. Let’s just talk about housing. Let’s talk about cost of living and inflation that his party on the national level has caused.”

Abortion In Hawaii

Recent polling data on the abortion issue in Hawaii is scarce, probably because the issue generally hasn’t been regarded as a major factor in state elections in recent years. But a survey of polling data compiled by The New York Times in May ranked Hawaii third in the nation among the states that are most supportive of abortion rights.

That ranking was based on polling by the Pew Research Center in 2014 that found 66% of Hawaii adults believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 29% said it should be illegal in all or most cases.

Another poll done in Hawaii by Planned Parenthood Alliance Activists in the run-up to the 2020 session of the Legislature produced similar findings.

A much earlier poll of Oahu residents done by The Honolulu Advertiser/Channel 2 News in 1989 found 57% believed abortion is “always or usually OK,” while 32% said abortion is always or usually wrong. However, that same poll found 78% believed “a woman should be allowed to have an abortion if her doctor agrees.”

Demonstrators head up Kalakaua Avenue in a rally and march to defend the right to abortion.
Abortion rights demonstrators in Waikiki in May. Republicans argue the abortion issue will be overshadowed in this year’s elections by Hawaii’s other problems, such as housing, cost of living and inflation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Patricia Steinhoff, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Hawaii Manoa, said the abortion issue may well affect voting in the Hawaii governor’s race this year because abortion rights supporters may use their ballots to make a statement.

Steinhoff believes Hawaii voters mostly understand access to abortion is protected here under state law, but “if people have been tuned into politics at the national level, many people may feel that it’s important to let this vote also reflect their position on the abortion issue, because that’s how it will be read elsewhere.”

“I think everyone in Hawaii was shocked to see what the Supreme Court did, and as a result I think it will mobilize a lot of people who still feel strongly about the issue,” said Steinhoff, who wrote a book on the subject called “Abortion Politics: The Hawaii Experience.”

She also recalled that the 1970 law legalizing abortion in Hawaii passed with the support of many Republicans. “It was not split Republican and Democrat in 1970, believe it or not,” Steinhoff said. Middle class residents from both parties supported legalization, she said.

In a footnote to that history, lawmakers revised Hawaii’s abortion law in 2006 with the aim of deleting provisions from the old statute that made it vulnerable to legal challenges. They left intact the original protections for abortion access in Hawaii, and Republican Gov. Linda Lingle signed the measure into law as Act 35.

Partisan Divide

The abortion issue has clearly become far more partisan since then. The current state GOP platform declares that “the Republican Party of Hawai‘i acknowledges the truth, that life begins at conception and ends with natural death. And, that all human lives existing within those markers have the same rights and protections guaranteed to all Americans.”

It continues: “We see the sanctity and value of every human life as equal, no matter the physical or mental diagnosis given before or after birth. Hawai‘i Republicans remain committed to defending the unborn and will continue to endorse measures that protect babies in the womb.”

Aiona echoes that view, explaining that “I believe in life. I believe in life from conception all the way to death.” But he is quick to add — again — that the Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs does not affect the state law that allows abortion in Hawaii.

Republican Gubernatorial candidate Duke Aiona speaks during a press conference sharing their plans for housing solutions.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Duke Aiona predicts the abortion issue will have little impact on the race for governor this year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Jim Hochberg, president of Hawaii Family Advocates, believes it is “shameful politics” for Green to make abortion an issue in the governor’s campaign. “It’s not an issue in this state,” he said.

“If Duke Aiona was sitting in the governor’s office with the current Legislature, there would be nothing changing on abortion in Hawaii,” Hochberg said. “It’s a complete non-issue in the governor’s race, and Josh Green is dishonestly trying to make it an issue so that he will tell people to vote for him. But he can’t do anything about it, because there’s nothing to be done.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham last month introduced a measure that would impose a national ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, but Hochberg said there is little cause for concern there, either. “It’s not going to pass the Congress, so who cares?” Hochberg said.

He predicts this talk about abortion will have little impact in the governor’s race because voters here are well informed, and they know that access to abortion remains unchanged in Hawaii. “It’s useless, it’s stupid, and he’s pandering,” said Hochberg. “He’s trying to get votes on the abortion issue, which is a complete non-issue.”

But Green thinks the Republicans are just wrong. He said he is “shocked” to hear Republicans claim that the issue of abortion rights has already been decided.

“I want to be direct. When Mr. Aiona and (Republican candidate for lieutenant governor Junior) Tupa‘i say that women’s health care rights and abortion rights are not central to what they will be a part of, they are absolutely lying to Hawaii’s people,” Green said.

“It is going to be central in every way, and we have to support any woman’s right to choose or not choose abortion.”

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