Republican Rep. David Eastman sparked outrage online after asking whether there could be economic benefits from the death of abused children.
Eastman asked a series of questions during a Monday House Judiciary Committee hearing on adverse childhood experiences — such as physical and sexual abuse on children or growing up in a household marred by domestic violence — and how they can negatively affect a person throughout their lives.
As part of the presentation, documents given to legislators estimated that when child abuse is fatal, it could cost the family and broader society $1.5 million in terms of trauma and what the child could potentially have earned over their lifetime.
Eastman said that he had heard an argument, on occasion, that when child abuse is fatal, it could economically benefit a society.
“It can be argued, periodically, that it’s actually a cost savings because that child is not going to need any of those government services that they might otherwise be entitled to receive and need based on growing up in this type of environment,” he said.
“Can you say that again? Did you say, ‘a benefit for society?’” asked Trevor Storrs, president and CEO of the Alaska Children’s Trust, in response. He said the loss of a child is “unmeasurable” to a family.
Rep. Cliff Groh, D-Anchorage, said he was “disturbed” by Eastman’s line of questioning after working as a prosecutor on child abuse cases.
Anchorage Democratic Rep. Andrew Gray later recounted that he and his husband had adopted their child from the foster care system who had several adverse childhood experiences. He said it may not have been intended, but the implication from Eastman’s comments was that his child was better off dead.
”I would just say for me personally, my child is the greatest joy I’ve ever had — that there is no price tag on that,” he said while choking up.
Homer Republican Rep. Sarah Vance, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, thanked Gray for sharing his story. Neither Vance nor Eastman apologized.
A clip of the exchange between Eastman and Storrs was shared widely on social media, sparking widespread outrage.
Leadership of the Republican-dominated House majority caucus has not yet met to discuss whether Eastman will be punished for his comments.
Eastman was not invited to join the House majority and his requests to join the caucus were rebuffed. Veteran lawmakers said he has alienated every caucus he has joined with his no-compromise approach to legislating, and his tendency to use his newsletters to harangue his GOP colleagues.
As a minority of one, Eastman is not entitled to serve on any legislative committees. In comparison, Republican Sens. Shelley Hughes and Mike Shower are both in an unrecognized minority caucus after policy differences and personality clashes with the bipartisan Senate majority — neither are members of committees that meet regularly.
“He is there at my invitation,” Vance said about the House Judiciary Committee. She wants Eastman to stay on the powerful policy committee because he served on it with her during previous legislatures. His different “thought process” can be beneficial, she said.
“I wished that he asked questions with a little bit more sensitivity to the listeners and how they’re perceived, and I can have that conversation,” she said. “But he’s there on his own accord and only represents himself.”
Vance, an abortion opponent, said she could not speak for Eastman but she believed he was trying to make a pro-life argument. She said many people consider abortion to be “child abuse,” but that abortion supporters have said terminating a pregnancy could be a better option than raising a child in difficult circumstances.
“One of the arguments for abortion has been that it’s better to terminate that child’s life before they become a burden to society,” Vance said.
Another committee member, Nikiski Republican Rep. Ben Carpenter, said that “Rep. Eastman’s comments are his own.”
“He is entitled to his opinion and I won’t be distracted by one member’s question and will instead remain focused on the important work of the legislature,” he said by email.
By text message, Vance later said that “it would be unfortunate to continue to highlight this one member rather than focus on the importance of the content provided to the committee and our desire to strengthen families.”
On Tuesday, Storrs said that he would give Eastman the benefit of the doubt that his questions were an attempt to better understand the information being presented. Storrs said one positive was that Eastman had asked whether spending more on prevention could help limit child abuse. The Alaska Children’s Trust has long sought increased investment in areas like child care to help do that.
Eastman himself did not respond to an interview request. By text message, he said, ”I was pleased to hear ACT advocating against child abuse, but a child’s value comes not from future productivity, but from the fact that every child is made in the image of God.”
Some House Republicans told the Daily News that they were appalled by Eastman’s comments, but they would not say that on the record. Eastman has a loyal and vocal band of far-right supporters who are known to call Republican offices and fight on his behalf when they feel he is being demonized.
Wasilla Republican Sen. David Wilson, who has been censured by his GOP district for caucusing with Democrats, had not seen the clip on social media as of Tuesday afternoon. Wilson said he had heard about Eastman’s comments and that they were not well thought out. Wilson said he did not approve of them.
Eastman has long attracted controversy in the state Capitol. He was censured in 2017 after claiming that women in rural villages try to get pregnant so they can get a free trip to the city for an abortion.
Eastman recently faced a court battle after a former constituent said his membership in the far right Oath Keepers made him ineligible to hold office in Alaska. An Anchorage judge ruled in Eastman’s favor, paving the Wasilla lawmaker’s way to remain in the House. Recent calls to expel him from the Legislature have not gained traction.
Gray said that Eastman has “boldly demonstrated who he is,” and noted that he has solidly won four consecutive elections.
By Sean Maguire