Abortion and Politics in WA State
By Camille Matern, November 1996
The issue of abortion is an old one, 175 years old. Before then, American
government didn't concern itself with abortion. In fact, abortion services were
advertised freely, especially in larger cities. There was a slow build in the
belief that abortion should never be allowed and it started with the medical profession.
As time passed and momentum grew, states began passing statutes to restrict a
woman's right and access to abortion and by 1860, 20 of the 33 states in the union
had laws restricting abortion. Many of the issues from the mid 1800's still exist
today. Questions abound. Should abortion be legal? If it should, how far into
the pregnancy should a woman be able to get an "abortion on demand?"
Should minor girls be able to get abortions without parental consent? Should poor
women be denied abortions or should the state fund them just as they fund deliveries?
Who should perform them? Should they continue to be performed in outpatient settings?
What about third trimester abortions? Should they be legal?
one side of the debate view abortion as a moral issue that centers around the
individual's right to privately decide what happens to her body. They believe
that the government has no business deciding the reproductive choices of an individual.
Those on the other side also see it as a moral issue, the issue of the right to
life. They believe that life begins at conception and that all life is sacred.
They believe that the embryo is supremely important and the mother must make sacrifices
to give birth to the child.
As is often our tradition in the U.S., when
we have strong moral or ethical beliefs we ask our legislators to get involved
and create laws to support our beliefs. One side of the issue is lobbying for
them to pass restrictive laws or to outlaw abortion completely. The other side
is lobbying for no restrictions, to let the woman decide what is best for her
situation. When we get our legislators involved, the issue becomes political.
It can't be a private decision, but becomes a heated political debate. Candidates
run based on their stand on abortion or use it to mobilize voters. People become
"one issue voters." It has divided the Republican Party all across the
country and mobilized an army of religious people to become politically active.
Abortion first became a political issue in Washington in the 1960's as pro-choice
advocates pushed for the legalization of abortion in some circumstances. On November
3, 1970, voters of Washington State liberalized the state abortion statue by passing
Referendum 20 by a 56.6% majority. The law allowed women and their doctors to
decide whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. It stipulated that abortions must
be performed in a hospital or other approved facility and that it must be done
during the first four lunar months after conception. It also stipulated that the
woman must have consent of a parent or guardian if she was under 18 and consent
of her husband if she was currently living with him. She must have been a resident
of the state for at least 90 days. On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court handed
down the ruling on Roe v. Wade. That ruling lifted many of the restrictions
on abortion in Washington. Now, a woman could have an abortion through the 24th
week of pregnancy; there wasn't a residency requirement. It also stated that a
facility that had "such legal/medical controls as would be protective of
her health" could perform abortions during the first trimester. Roe v.
Wade did not address the issues of spousal or parental consent, but by the
mid-70's the Washington State Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court handed
down decisions that freed a minor from parental consent and a wife from a husband's
Conservative groups saw an opportunity to increase their strength
by exploiting the abortion issue. The founders of the New Right, in an effort
to gain more supporters, turned to the evangelical and fundamentalist churches.
They sent mail encouraging support for their cause, using the Supreme Court's
recent decisions on abortion rights and the removal of prayer in public schools
as the motivating factor. They asked church members to give money and to become
politically active. The money began to pour in.
These conservative groups
had their origins in the Barry Goldwater campaign for the presidency in 1964.
Among Goldwater's supporters were a core group of individuals who believed that
there was a movement called "secular humanism" that was steering our
country away from a "God-centered society" towards atheistic socialism.
These supporters founded a variety of groups formed to fight communism, civil
rights, feminism and other political and social reform movements of the sixties.
During the 70's and 80's the social reforms continued and with them, growing opposition
in the form of right-wing organizations promoting "family values." After
Roe v. Wade, abortion became a major focus of many of these groups. In
addition to the controversial substance of the decision, it was also proof of
a Supreme Court out of control (in their view), making law instead of interpreting
Copying the strategy of the civil rights and antiwar movements, the
New Right turned to the churches. They developed committed supporters. The leaders
in this movement began strategizing about ways to empower themselves. They knew
that to achieve their goals, they would have to have influence over the political
arena. They wrote manuals for their followers teaching them how to get elected
to office. They worked together, often serving as advisors on each others boards.
Television soon became the preferred method of reaching the masses. Televangelists
seemed to spring up everywhere: Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Oral
Roberts and Jerry Falwell reached millions of viewers each week.
leaders of the New Right met with Jerry Falwell and asked him to head a religious
right political organization that would put pressure on Reagan and other elected
officials to conform to their views regarding abortion, gays and lesbians, sex
education, school prayer, teaching creationism, separation of church and state
and other issues. That was the beginning of the Moral Majority, which supported
Reagan and Bush in the 1980 presidential election. They also supported many candidates
for Congress who subscribed to their views. They tried to hinder the campaigns
of candidates who were pro-abortion or disagreed with their overall philosophy.
The Moral Majority had organizations in every state, and claimed credit for helping
to elect Republican right-wing candidates.
Reagan appointed several of
the religious right activists to federal positions but largely ignored the social
issues that motivated them, one of the most important issues being abortion. Some
believe that this is what gave rise to the militant antiabortion groups that emerged
during the mid and late 80's, such as Operation Rescue, started in 1987 by Terry
Randall. The job of legislators has been described as being political as well
as law- and policy-making. State and Local Politics states that "the primary
job is to defuse these pressures [of competing interest groups] so that the political
system can function intact without blowing wide apart." An argument can be
made that the Reagan administration failed to defuse the anti-abortionists and,
by ignoring them, effectively fueled their fire.
Washington has been
a victim of the violence that antiabortion protesters have demonstrated all over
the country. For example, the Feminist Women's Health Center opened a clinic in
Everett in 1983. They were greeted with a barrage of harassment, hate mail and
personal threats. They were bombarded with phone calls to jam the phone lines
and disturbed by as much noise as the protesters outside could make, all in an
effort to close them down. The first fire bombing came shortly after they opened
their doors. Before they were closed for good, less than a year after they opened,
they were fire-bombed twice more. Although some of the leaders of the anti-choice
movement denounced these actions, others thought they were justified.
With the Reagan administration focusing on foreign policy and economic issues,
the religious right became frustrated. In addition they had a number of setbacks
when three initiatives to restrict abortion failed in Washington in the mid to
late 80's, with two not even reaching the ballot. The antiabortion cause was waning.
They stepped back and refocused on the local level. They began going after state
and local offices -- including local Republican Party organizations. They had
long since given up on starting their own political party. Taking control of the
Republican Party was the best political move they could make. This was the beginning
of the fight for the Republican Party in Washington State.
success came with the Pat Robertson campaign for the presidency in 1988. Pat Robertson
was one of the early televangelists, and is the founder of The 700 Club. He used
his show to introduce politics and politicians to his viewers and to encourage
them to become politically active. During Pat Robertson's bid for the Presidency
in 1988, he carried Washington state in the primary caucuses which was a large
contrast to both the rest of the country and polls of Republican voters within
the state. This demonstrated the vulnerability of the caucus system to takeover
by small but committed groups. With the ease of contacting and staying in touch
with their constituency through weekly church attendance and his television programs,
Robertson's supporters were able to organize a large attendance at the caucuses,
voting for Robertson's delegates. Since state presidential caucuses generally
have a sparse turnout, even a small group, if it fully attends, can have a powerful
impact on the results of the caucus. This could be one of the reasons that the
state has moved to a presidential primary to either replace or supplement the
The quiet takeover of the caucuses in Washington is an example
of the "stealth campaigns" that Robertson and the executive director
of his Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed, advocate. Reed advocates running for low-level
offices without announcing affiliation with the religious right or disclosing
their full political agendas: "I want to be invisible. I do guerrilla warfare.
I paint my face and travel at night. You don't know it's over until you're in
a body bag. You don't know until election night."
for the presidency was unsuccessful and many thought it meant that the strength
of the religious right had peaked but the truth was that it proved to be a gold
mine of supporters and laid the foundation for a national organization, the Christian
Coalition. The Coalition is organized just like the major political parties and
has grown into one of the most successful political organizations in the nation,
claiming 1.4 million members. The Christian Coalition sponsors seminars teaching
political activism including one called "How to Take Over Your District".
The Christian Coalition presents two-day seminars for followers to learn how to
organize precincts, run for office, and tap into church support. Abortion remains
one of their key issues.
The Supreme Court's decision in a 1989 case,
Webster v. Reproductive Health Services revitalized the antiabortion cause. That
decision upheld the rights of states to restrict abortion in several ways. The
abortion debate now moved to the state legislatures, not the federal government.
As the antiabortion activists were organizing around Robertson and the Christian
Coalition, pro-choice organizations were working to mobilize their forces on the
other side, to protect choice in Washington. The appointment of several conservative
justices to the Supreme Court during the Reagan and Bush years ignited fears in
pro-choice organizations that Roe v. Wade could be completely overturned.
These organizations banded together to become Taxpayers for Choice and later Pro-Choice
Washington, and created and supported Initiative 120, the Reproductive Privacy
Act, to codify Roe v. Wade into state law. This was not a strictly grassroots
effort. Many elected officials at the time, cochaired the effort, including Booth
Gardner (then governor, a Democratic) and Joel Pritchard (then lt. governor, a
Republican). As an indication of how political abortion had become, there were
many diverse groups on both sides of the Initiative 120 debate. Pro-Choice Washington
was made up of many organizations, including: American Association of University
Women, ACLU, Asian Pacific Women's Caucus, League of Women Voters, NARAL, NOW,
National Political Congress of Black Women, Planned Parenthood Affiliates of Washington,
Planned Parenthood of Seattle-King County, Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights,
Washington Citizens for Abortion Choice, Washington State Political Caucus, Washington
Women United and the Northwest Women's Law Center. Groups that opposed 120 included:
Human Life, Washington United, Washington State Catholic Conference, Christian
Action Council of King County, Western Washington American Family Association.
Although the legislation only affected Washington state, the Initiative received
national support. Only 150,001 signatures were required to put the measure before
the Legislature, but the initiative went to the Legislature with more than 242,000
signatures, the most ever gathered for an initiative in the state's history at
that time. Since the Legislature chose not to pass the initiative, it was presented
to the voters on the November ballot. Surprisingly, it only passed by a very narrow
margin, less than half of a percent.
Speculation on why the margin was
so narrow came mostly from the pro-choice side citing a last minute multimedia
ad campaign by opponents that many people found questionable. One of the tactics
was to suggest that passing the initiative would cost voters $60 million, using
some very shaky reasoning. This ad raised enough concern that the Attorney General
investigated it as false advertising. It could also be argued that the lower approval
rate than Referendum 20 was because Initiative 120 contained none of the restrictions
present in Referendum 20.
The religious right, using abortion among other
social issues, has been able to activate thousands of people in the political
process. They are outspoken and adamant about their views. They lobbied for a
strict antiabortion plank in the Republican platform. Although there are many
moderate Republicans who believe in and support choice, they have been forced
to accept the platform. To show unity and solidarity within the party, they are
quiet about how they differ on this issue. Moderate Republicans are in an extremely
difficult position because their views differ with that of the far right and the
Republican platform and they are not happy about it. One indication of the rift
was the creation of an organization called the Washington Republican Coalition
for Choice, which kicked off its effort to help like minded GOP candidates run
for office in February 1992. They were offering help to pro-choice GOP candidates
while not targeting the anti-choice candidates. Another example of this split
was the resignation of Fiona Buzzard in 1994 as Chairperson of the Thurston County
Republican Party after calling Rep. Linda Smith "anti-woman" and a radical
right-winger for her views on abortion and her hard line stance with the religious
right. One Republican delegate said during the state 1996 Republican Convention
that pro-choice Republicans keep quiet because if they voice their views they
are greeted with boo's and hostility from the anti-choice attendees. The religious
right is making it more and more difficult to be a moderate in the Republican
Party and weakening the party by splitting it into two camps. Although the right
has enough strength to nominate their candidates, they do not have the strength
to get them elected by the populace as a whole as evidenced by the recent defeat
of Republican Ellen Craswell for Governor by a significant margin.
Democrats have been the faithful pro-choice party for many years but this has
not saved them from some of the same controversy that the Republicans have suffered.
For example, this year the draft of the state Democratic Party platform did not
contain a pro-choice plank, which angered Democratic pro-choice advocates. Although
this was later corrected, it serves as an example of how candidates and legislators
alike want to avoid the issue of abortion. The problem is that with so many people
and organizations on both sides of the issue wanting to know how the candidates
feel about abortion, they really can't avoid the issue; but their actions resemble
playing dodge ball with it.
Both sides of the abortion issue gave rise
to a new phenomenon: the single issue voter. People would support or not support
a candidate based upon his or her stand on the abortion issue alone. Abortion
became the line in the sand, for many people, that separated the candidates philosophically.
Both sides have successfully used abortion to motivate people to become politically
involved, even if all that means is voting for or against the issue. The voter
turnout in 1991 for Initiative 120 bears this out; turnout was significantly higher
than in other off year elections.
Initiative 120 has strengthened abortion
rights in this state. It resolved the issue for many state legislators; by law,
the initiative could not be amended for two years after it was passed, which allowed
the legislators to focus on other issues. The fact that abortion rights are written
into law lends much political clout to the pro-choice cause here in Washington.
To revoke these rights would mean that the legislators would have to vote to overturn
the will of the people and that is considered a bad political decision if they
want to be reelected or move on to another elected office, after all, how can
you trust a politician that doesn't listen to the people? Most legislators are
reluctant to chip away at the rights given women in Initiative 120 although members
of the far right keep proposing legislation to do just that. As a rule, they tend
to avoid tinkering with laws made by a popular vote of the people.
the two year ban expired, there were several laws proposed in the Legislature
to restrict abortion. Some had to do with the state funding them for poor women.
Others had to do with parental consent or notification laws. Last year, they tried
to ban some late term abortions. The bills, for the most part, have not gotten
out of committee. It is believed that the newly elected legislators will give
bills more of a hearing as the pro-choice majority has become slim at best.
The divisiveness and passion surrounding the abortion issue doesn't just
kill legislation directly about abortion. It can be blamed for killing much needed
legislation in 1991 that would have built six teen centers that would have provided
mental-health counseling, health screening and referrals to doctors, job training
and treatment for drug or alcohol abuse. After years of effort, Rep. Lorraine
Hine and other legislators thought that they had finally mustered enough votes
to pass this legislation. The bill had never made it past the Senate Children
and Family Services Committee (largely composed of abortion opponents). The pro-choice
Hine went to these lawmakers and agreed to insert the following line in the bill
if they would pass it: "Funds provided shall not be expended for abortion
services or referrals or contraceptive services or referrals." But when the
bill was read on the floor, Sen. Janice Niemi, a liberal Seattle Democrat, rose
to propose an amendment deleting that language; in response, the GOP leaders dropped
the discussion without a vote. This move angered many in the Democratic party
who were willing to agree to the language to get these centers set up. But many
wondered just what that line might mean. Did it mean that teenage girls who were
pregnant could not be referred to Planned Parenthood because they provide abortion
services along with other services? The article in the Seattle Times on April
22, 1991 that reported this incident also discussed how Senate Republicans "bitterly
divided among themselves, work hard to ensure the issue never comes up" and
stated, "with the exception of voting to raise taxes, there are few issues
most legislators work harder to avoid than abortion." The abortion battle
thus becomes one that is fought on the edges by looking for any inference that
might in some way bring up the abortion issue.
There are many ways that
anti-choice groups can fight to restrict abortion, even in a generally pro-choice
state. Not all people who favor choice believe that abortion should exist without
any restrictions and not all anti-choice people believe that abortions should
never be granted. Many people float somewhere in the middle. There are complex
issues within the area of abortion and that turns it into a multidimensional issue
with no easy answers. Therefore, anti-choice groups concentrate on these issues,
not the general right to abortion.
One of the most heated issues within
the abortion debate is that Washington is one of the few states that fund abortion
services for poor women. Initiative 120 mandated that if the state was going to
pay for delivery services for poor women, then it must provide the choice of terminating
the pregnancy for women as well. State funding for abortion angers some people.
They believe that if they make a moral choice not to support abortion, then they
should have the right to not be forced to pay for those abortions with their tax
dollars. They don't want government acting as an abortion provider. Even many
people who consider themselves to be pro-choice favor restricting funding for
abortions. Most pro-choice activists would argue vehemently with this. They don't
see the government as an abortion provider any more than they see it as a provider
for any other kind of medical procedure for which Medicaid pays. The state of
Washington has set up Medicaid as a safety net to help low income people with
medical care if they can't afford it. Within that safety net, if maternity care
and deliveries are to be provided for, then abortions should also be provided,
based on the woman's choice.
There are also many moderates and conservatives
who believe that teens shouldn't be allowed to have an abortion without parental
consent or notification. These people talk a lot about "family values"
and how the government is shredding the fabric of the family. They believe that,
as parents, they have a right to know what their teenage daughters are doing.
This is a difficult issue. It is hard to disagree with the desire of parents to
protect their daughters from something they think might harm them or that goes
against their values as a family. The problem is that, in many families, the girls
are not safe to go to their parents. They risk physical, emotion and mental abuse
if they do. Some will be turned out on the street. Others will be forced to have
children they don't want or can't care for. Some will be physically abused. Although
the intentions of the people who want to know what their kids are doing are honorable,
the fact remains that good family communication can't be legislated. Washington
state already allows teens to consent to being tested and treated for STDs, obtain
birth control, obtain drug and alcohol abuse treatment and to make pre- and postnatal
care decisions, all without parental notifications. If they are allowed to make
those decisions, they must also be allowed to make the decision about whether
or not to carry their pregnancy to term.
The latest tactic of the far
right has been to bring attention to what they label the "partial birth abortion."
The term "partial birth abortion" is not a term that has been used by
anyone other than the people who opposed abortion. It was created to inflame and
draw attention to their cause. It is not a medical term. The correct term is an
Intact D&E or Intact Dilation & Evacuation (or D&X for Dilation and
Extraction). They have lobbied Congress and the state legislators to ban this
procedure from being performed. They use inflammatory descriptions of a procedure
and gruesome pictures. They have said that the fetus is yanked out of the mother
and stabbed with scissors which is an incorrect description. The pro-choice side
disagrees almost entirely. Perhaps 5000 Intact D & E's are performed each
year nationwide, in the late second and early third trimester. This is the first
time legislators have been confronted with a demand from laypeople to ban a specific
The abortion issue is not going to go away. Nor is
it going to be settled any time soon. It incites fervor and action on both sides.
Clearly it is one of the most complex issues we face today. It is written about
more than many other major political issues. Taking a random search through one
year's worth of articles appearing in the Seattle Times, abortion was mentioned
300 times! Compare this to other controversial issues such as the death penalty
with 162 mentions, adoption with 148 and gangs with 124. Abortion got three times
as many mentions as welfare reform!
I believe the decision to have an
abortion is a private one. I don't believe it is a decision the government or
anyone else should make for me or anyone else. When I think of the women who came
before me, who were held prisoners of their biology because legal abortion and
even birth control were not available to them, it conjures up feelings of deep
sympathy in me. Being imprisoned by their own bodies effectively runs every other
part of their lives, rendering them powerless to make other choices. It can affect
whether or not a woman can continue or get an education, whether she lives in
poverty or not, whether she has to give up all her hopes and goals because she
now has the responsibility of a child. Adoption is touted as the answer by abortion
opponents but, for most women, this is not an option. The emotional and physical
toll of carrying a baby to term makes it impossible for most women to be able
to give it up. Abortion is an extremely difficult decision for any woman to make.
Abortion opponents often confuse relief with not caring. It is rarely a decision
reached lightly or one that doesn't exact an emotional toll.
women count in this society. I believe they bring enormous gifts to the world
and not just through bearing children. We are still finding out what those gifts
are; they are still coming. Keeping women prisoners deprives the world of some
of those gifts by eliminating the choice of which road they might take. For some
women, abortion is not an option. Pro-choice advocates are just as vehement about
defending a woman's right to bear a child as they are about defending another
woman's right to have an abortion. Being pro-choice doesn't just mean being pro-abortion.
It means being pro-woman. It means giving women control over their own lives and
destinies and making women responsible for themselves.
The state has
an obligation to fund legal abortion, just as they fund deliveries. It should
be neutral in making available all legal options to a woman. The direct cost to
the state for providing this service is minimal. In fiscal 1995, the state paid
$4.2 million for under 10,000 abortions while paying $147 million for deliveries.
In a pluralistic society, we all end up paying for things that we are morally
opposed to; war is one example, the death penalty is another.
believe that teens should not be required to get consent from a parent or have
their parents notified if they decide to terminate a pregnancy. In addition to
the arguments listed above, statistics show that most teens go to at least one
parent when they find that they are pregnant. Statistics also show that, of the
teens that opt for an abortion, most end up feeling more in control of their lives.
Judicial bypass has been set up as an alternative to the young women who cannot
go to their parents, but the American Bar Association and the judges who have
had to preside over these requests say that the bypass laws don't work and they
hurt these girls. They have to take more time off from school, find transportation
to the courthouse, risk their privacy, and participate in judicial proceedings
that would make most adults nervous. This also delays the procedure, leading to
increased risk of complications. The bypass laws end up discriminating against
the poor and uneducated girls. Many, when confronted with this challenge, end
up going past the deadline for an abortion and are forced to bear the child. These
are the young girls, who with their children, are most likely to end up in poverty
as welfare mothers. To quote Senator Mark O. Hatfield, R.-Oregon, "I feel
that parents should know when their children are sexually active. But I do not
believe parents should have to rely on the government to tell them."
The future of abortion will be closely linked to the future of the religious
right and as a result, the major political parties. The religious right has an
agenda that encompasses much more than the abortion issue, but nothing seems to
fuel them more than the rise and fall of abortion rights in this country. Abortion
is one of the major issues that is shaping our society. It is fair to say that
the legalization of abortion has been shaken by the political process, but abortion
has also shaken the political process.
The Antiabortion Movement and the Rise of the Religious Right;
Dallas A. Blanchard 1994
Rubin, Eva R.; Abortion, Politics and the Courts;
Junas, Daniel; The Religious Right in Washington, A Special Report;
The NARAL Foundation; Who Decides? A State by State Review
of Abortion Rights; 1992
Pro-Choice Washington; Abortion in
Washington State; 1991
Case Statement for Feminist Women's Health Center;
A Brief History of the Feminist Women's Health Center; March
The Seattle Times; Articles referring to abortion and politics;
1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996.
Henshaw, Stanley K. and Kost, Katheryn;
"Parental Involvement In Minors' Abortion Decision"; Family Planning
Perspectives; September/October 1992
Kenney, Asta M. and Forrest ,
Jacqueline D. and Torres, Aida; "Storm over Washington: The Parental Notification
Proposal", Family Planning Perspectives; July/August 1982
Patricia; Our Daughters' Decisions; 1992
Burns, Peltason, Cronin
and Magleby; State and Local Politics; 1996
Sheehan, Jerry (Legislative
Director for ACLU-W); Private conversation; November 1996
Current Abortion Law in WA - Initiative 120 - known
as the Reproductive Privacy Act, Initiative 120 was passed
into law by a vote of the citizens of WA in 1991.
It is a crime to interfere with health care facilities or providers in Washington State - see RCW Chapter 9A.50 (Revised Code of Washington)
Pro-Choice position is the middle ground. It lets you make your decision and me
Feminist Women's Health Center