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?

Those on 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 consent.

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 it.

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.

The 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.

The earliest 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 caucuses.

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."

Robertson's bid 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.

The 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.

After 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 medical procedure.

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.

I believe 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.

I also 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; 1987

Junas, Daniel; The Religious Right in Washington, A Special Report; January 1995

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; June, 1996

A Brief History of the Feminist Women's Health Center; March 1992

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

Donovan, 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

triangle bulletCurrent 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.

triangle bulletIt is a crime to interfere with health care facilities or providers in Washington State - see RCW Chapter 9A.50 (Revised Code of Washington)

A Pro-Choice position is the middle ground. It lets you make your decision and me make mine.

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