NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, September 4th, 2021

A lasting lesson in privacy, persuasion, and social justice: Remembering how abortion became legal in Washington State in 1970

Referendum 20 bumper stickers

Ref­er­en­dum 20 bumper stick­ers (Cour­tesy of MOHAI)

Wash­ing­ton legal­ized abor­tion in 1970, three years before the Unit­ed States Supreme Court’s land­mark Roe v. Wade rul­ing, fol­low­ing a bruis­ing cam­paign in which oppo­nents erect­ed bill­boards show­ing a fetus with the slo­gan, “Kill Ref. 20, Not Me.”

The Ever­green State went on to strength­en a woman’s right to choose in 1991 and has since required that insur­ers offer con­tra­cep­tives as part of their health plans.

The reli­gious right is on a half-cen­tu­ry los­ing streak here, com­ing up short in  both abor­tion votes, watch­ing vot­ers approve domes­tic part­ner­ships (2009) and then mar­riage equal­i­ty (2012), and in 2020 rat­i­fy a sup­pos­ed­ly con­tro­ver­sial com­pre­hen­sive sex edu­ca­tion man­date for the state’s pub­lic schools.

Why here, and what lessons does expe­ri­ence here hold for oth­er states in which abor­tion restric­tions and bans are gain­ing trac­tion in Repub­li­can-run Legislatures?

We had cir­cum­stances and a polit­i­cal cul­ture not repli­cat­ed today. A con­tin­gent of rea­son­able Repub­li­cans in the Wash­ing­ton State Sen­ate – Joel Pritchard, Char­lie Elick­er, Fran Hol­man – cham­pi­oned legal­iza­tion. Gov­er­nor Dan Evans and Attor­ney Gen­er­al Slade Gor­ton, both lat­er bound for the U.S. Sen­ate, were pro-choice.

Pro-choice Repub­li­cans are today a species even more endan­gered than the spot­ted owl. The two par­ties have polar­ized. Sen­a­tor Joe Manchin (D‑West Vir­ginia) and Louisiana Gov­er­nor John Bel Edwards are about the only two out­spo­ken anti-abor­tion Democ­rats in upper ranks of the party.

A once-size­able right-to-life cau­cus among House Democ­rats has vanished.

In years gone by, con­tra­cep­tion was a cause with Repub­li­can champions.

A Hous­ton con­gress­man in the late 1960s cham­pi­oned con­tra­cep­tion with such inten­si­ty that col­leagues nick­named him “Rub­bers.”

His name was Rep­re­sen­ta­tive George H.W. Bush.

But an anti-abor­tion plank has been includ­ed in the Repub­li­cans’ plat­form for more than forty years.

Lessons of long-ago deci­sions in this state remain salient after half-a-cen­tu­ry. The pro-choice, pro-free­dom move­ment, focused on gen­der rights, could ben­e­fit from redefin­ing its appeal.

Abor­tion bans kill. The 1970 legal­iza­tion vote was pre­ced­ed by deaths of two women from botched abor­tions. Peo­ple were moved, not by the threat, but by the real­i­ty. A mem­o­rable con­fronta­tion took place at mass in Seattle’s Assump­tion parish. A priest vis­it­ing for a mis­sion pro­gram began a fiery ser­mon about abor­tion as “mur­der.” A young con­gre­gant asked whether a des­per­ate young woman, seek­ing a back-alley abor­tion­ist, was risk­ing her own life.

The priest refused to respect or respond to the question.

Pri­va­cy is a guid­ing val­ue in Wash­ing­ton, curi­ous­ly under­played by pro­gres­sives nation­al­ly. Per­haps it is our immi­grant tra­di­tion, the North­west being a place to escape from rules and rigid tra­di­tions applied else­where in the country.

It was an issue cen­tral to the legal­iza­tion vote. A promi­nent Luther­an par­son, speak­ing for Ref­er­en­dum 20, argued that the state had no role in decid­ing whether to bring a preg­nan­cy to term. The deci­sion belonged to a woman with involve­ment of their part­ner, fam­i­ly, physi­cian and minister.

Sur­pris­ing­ly, I have seen few if any state cam­paigns run on a theme of pri­va­cy.  The reli­gious right seems to assume a right to dic­tate and dis­crim­i­nate. Where is the chal­lenge? In Texas, coun­sel­ing and aid­ing pri­vate deci­sions – even dri­ving per­sons to a clin­ic — has been des­ig­nat­ed grounds for snitch­es to bring lawsuits.

Social jus­tice was a major fac­tor here, too.

Well-off Wash­ing­ton women were able to fly to Japan for abor­tions. Future U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Jolene Unsoeld, D‑Washington, was one of those women and wrote about it in a 2018 mem­oir. (Unsoeld had a very con­ser­v­a­tive father, but rec­og­nized it was her deci­sion to make and sup­port­ed her.)

A clin­ic in a ven­er­a­ble build­ing on Fourth Avenue in down­town Seat­tle offered the pro­ce­dure, again dis­creet­ly to those who were well-connected.

The poor had no such recourse, until a Ren­ton physi­cian, Dr. A. Frans Koome, announced in pub­lic that he was per­form­ing abortions.

Dr. Koome had cojones. He brought down an avalanche of pub­lic­i­ty but put a spot­light on the eco­nom­ics and hypocrisy sur­round­ing abor­tion in Washington.

Hence, legal­iz­ing choice became an issue for rea­son­able folk to embrace, in remov­ing the per­il of back-alley abor­tions, respect­ing pri­va­cy in a very per­son­al deci­sion, and mak­ing a med­ical pro­ce­dure avail­able to all and not just the wealthy and well-connected.

The pub­lic also recoiled at the right-to-lif­ers’ stridency.

A Catholics-for-Choice move­ment sprung up in the state. A famous prank took place as elec­tion day neared. A “Kill Ref. 20 Not Me Bill­board” stood promi­nent­ly in Seattle’s Uni­ver­si­ty Dis­trict. A per­son (or per­sons) unknown climbed up and paint­ed a mes­sage beneath the fetus: “Hap­py Mother’s Day.”

Demo­c­ra­t­ic elect­ed offi­cials are already focus­ing on repro­duc­tive rights as a 2022 elec­tion issue.  They’re fresh­en­ing their email lists for fundrais­ing appeals.

An appeal from King Coun­ty Exec­u­tive Dow Con­stan­tine just arrived along these lines: “Will you add your name to our peti­tion in sup­port of repro­duc­tive free­dom? Thank you for stand­ing with us – It’s nev­er mat­tered more.”

A donate but­ton followed.

My rec­om­men­da­tion: Do a lit­tle mes­sage retool­ing. What res­onat­ed with vot­ers in this state a half-cen­tu­ry ago is a blue­print for bol­ster­ing and pro­tect­ing the right of choice from Wash­ing­ton to Wash­ing­ton, and even regres­sive places in between.

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