SEATTLE—Though a bid to ban partial-birth abortion failed on Capitol Hill last month, the debate is reaching a peak in Washington state. By voter initiative, pro-life advocates are seeking to outlaw the controversial procedure in Washington, the state with the most permissive abortion statutes in the nation. Radio and television ads from both sides are about to start airing. The vote is slated for Nov. 3.
Polls seem to show that support for the ban — called Initiative 694 — has waned since mid-summer.
A survey commissioned in July by pro-choice campaigners showed that 47% of voters supported a ban on the late-term procedure, while 45% opposed it. But two media-sponsored polls taken in September show only 37% support and 49% opposition.
In the procedure known as partial-birth abortion, doctors pull the infant into the birth canal and use a suction catheter to remove the brains before crushing the skull and fully delivering the child's body.
Using a structure of sequential logic not unlike the proofs of St. Thomas Aquinas, the ban initiative's writers argue that partial-birth abortion is not abortion at all, but infanticide.
“Scientifically, medically, and legally, a child in the process of birth is no longer a fetus, but an infant,” says the proposed law, which would provide exceptions if the mother's death were imminent. “The intentional killing of an infant child in the process of birth is infanticide. Abortion is the termination of a pregnancy by intentionally killing a living human fetus in the uterus or womb before the process of birth begins.”
Supporters of the ban, ironically, are hanging their hopes for constitutional muster on the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. In that ruling, the justices argued for a right to abortion, but upheld parts of a Texas law that banned infanticide. The justices were silent on the issue of partially born children.
“This is a tack that no one has taken yet,” says Chad Minnick, campaign coordinator for the Committee to Stop Infanticide. He said that if the opposition can turn the issue into one of abortion rights instead of infanticide, then they have a better chance of winning.
No one is certain if any partial-birth abortions have occurred in Washington state; distinct reports are not required. The closest published statistic is this: late-term abortions have ranged from three to six per year since 1994.
Those come among the total of approximately 26,000 annual abortions in the state. But pro-life advocates estimate that 5,000 to 6,000 partial-birth abortions are performed each year nationwide. Minnick says it stands to reason that many of such abortions happen in Washington state.
Foes of Initiative 694 see the measure as a step toward outlawing all abortions. The Internet website for ‘No on 694’ says the initiative “is designed to sensationalize abortion procedures and try to reduce public support for choice.” Stephanie Bowman, campaign manager for the group, says, “Initiative 694 places the doctor-patient relationship in jeopardy because its odd and vague language means virtually any abortion could be investigated and prosecuted as a felony.”
However, Michael Stokes Paulsen, a constitutional law expert at the University of Minnesota, says the initiative “takes care to define its terms with precision, tracking medical definitions and understandings, to limit itself to situations where the process of birth has begun and not to affect situations of true ‘abortion’ as legally and medically understood.”
The ban is the idea of evangelical Christians in Washington, including local outlets of the Christian Coalition. Also backing it vigorously are the state's three Catholic dioceses, which authorized signature gathering in churches this summer. In just six weeks, volunteers collected 220,000 signatures, about 40,000 more than required.
In June, the state's three bishops issued a parish bulletin insert about the initiative. In the coming week, they intend to send out another insert, re-stating their support for the ban as well as for initiatives that boost the minimum wage and affirmative action.
Unlike Oregon's bishops, who took up a collection at Masses in a failed attempt to defeat a 1994 assisted-sui-cide proposition, Washington's Catholic prelates will not raise funds in an organized way.
However, the bishops are allowing groups like the Knights of Columbus to collect campaign contributions.
Ban supporters appear to be depending on a large number of local, Church-based donors who give $100 to $200 apiece. So far, they have collected more than $75,000. The largest donor to date is Human Life of Washington, which gave $5,000.
Planned Parenthood is by far the major donor to ‘No on 694,’ having given $300,000. The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League donated $15,000 and the American Civil Liberties Union gave $10,000. ‘No on 694’ reports total fundraising of $400,000 so far.
Other foes of the ban include local women's coalitions, abortion clinics, the state Democratic party, the Washington State Women's Political Caucus, and the League of Women Voters. The Washington State Medical Association also opposes the proposal, saying it threatens the health of women.
The outcome may be determined by what some political scientists call “the soccer mom effect.” Suburban middle-aged women with families— moderate Republicans and “New Democrats”— are the swing vote, says David Olson, professor of political science at the University of Washington. Olson thinks this sometimes unpredictable bloc will oppose the ban strongly. “These women can be very conservative or very liberal, but in this case I expect a strong vote against,” says Olson.
Olson thinks another reason the ban may fail is that Washington is “one of the most secular states in the country. If you look at active Church membership, we tend to rank near the end.”
Washington state has for decades voted in favor of legal abortion. A1970 initiative secured abortion rights in the state well ahead of Roe v. Wade. In 1984, voters refused to withdraw public funding for abortions for women on Medicaid. In 1991, amid fears that the Supreme Court might overturn Roe. v. Wade, voters passed an initiative that strengthened abortion rights in Washington state, even to the point of requiring that any funds allocated for maternity care be matched by funds for abortions.
The Washington legislature attempted to pass a ban on partial-birth abortion in the last session. The House ushered it through, but the Senate made dozens of amendments, attempting to avert a veto by Gov. Gary Locke. The watered-down bill never made it to the governor's desk.
“Unfortunately we have never been able to win on abortion,” says Dominican Sister Sharon Park, director of the Washington State Catholic Conference. “But this is different. It just targets the procedure. There is no way this will stop abortion in the state of Washington.”
Initiative 694 has also become a fiery issue in the state's race to fill a seat in the U.S. Senate. Sen. Patty Murray, the Democratic incumbent, opposes it. Rep. Linda Smith, a Republican challenger, favors it.
Ed Langlois writes from Portland, Oregon.