1990 battle easily eclipses 2012 ultrasound fracas
March 25, 2012
Think this spring's ultrasound battle is epic? Join me at 1990 Memory Lane, when Idaho was the epicenter of a national struggle over abortion rights.
On March 30, 1990, Gov. Cecil Andrus vetoed House Bill 625, which would have been the toughest anti-abortion law in the country. The story was prominent on network news shows that night, in the days before the atomization of cable TV. For weeks, Boise was a regular dateline in The New York Times, USA Today and The Washington Post. The Senate debate was broadcast live on C-SPAN.
"It began early, engaged national interest groups on both sides and consumed the whole session," said former GOP Rep. Pam Ahrens, who co-chaired a two-day joint State Affairs Committee hearing that drew 1,500 people to Boise State's Jordan Ballroom. "Compared to 1990, this year seems like a flash mob."
The National Right to Life Committee wrote HB 625, hoping it would be the instrument to overturn Roe v. Wade. National potato boycotts were threatened; the glass doors to the governor's office were broken by a mob; and Richard Wilkins, a professor and abortion foe at BYU Law School, urged a veto on constitutional grounds.
Andrus, anti-abortion throughout a long career, suddenly became a champion in the eyes of the National Organization for Women and National Abortion Rights Action League.
After the national spotlight dimmed, Idaho Republican women sent the men running their party a message: Democrat Andrus was re-elected with 68 percent of the vote; his party won a 21-21 tie in the Senate; and Larry LaRocco became the first Democrat to capture the 1st Congressional District in 26 years.
Andrus told me the 2012 GOP was used again by what he called "national and Idaho right-wing crazies" but appears to have cut its losses by backing away from the ultrasound mandate and canceling a House hearing on Senate Bill 1387.
"They're slow learners over there," Andrus said. "It's not only politically correct, but it's the right thing to do. They need to take that piece of garbage and put it in the round file."
LaRocco agreed. "This is still a gift to Democrats, but wiser heads prevailed. Somebody probably said, 'You've got to remember 1990.' If this bill had passed, you'd have had three, five, seven days of marches around the Capitol, just like 1990."
Opponents of HB 625 held candlelight vigils for nine days between passage of the bill and the veto, the crowd growing from hundreds to thousands.
"They circled the entire Capitol block," said Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, one of six lawmakers serving in 1990 who are still in office today.
Darrington, who voted for HB 625, recalls leaving the Capitol at night and being astounded by the crowd, both for its size and bipartisan composition. "There were all these people on the sidewalks holding their placards. People didn't cat-call us. We found friends in the line and greeted them. It was a peaceful protest, a very solemn protest."
It took years before the candle wax vanished from the south front steps, despite efforts of maintenance crews. "The saying was, 'You can tell your friends by the wax on their shoes,'" said LaRocco. "They were all there. And they included moderate Republican women."
HB 625 would have outlawed between 93 and 98 percent of all abortions, which would have been limited to victims of incest; women who'd reported a rape to police within seven days; or cases where a physician certified that continuing a pregnancy would cause death or "severe and long-lasting physical health damage."
This year's SB 1387 doesn't go that far, but the specter of requiring vaginal ultrasounds to determine gestational age and heart rate before early-term abortions crossed the line, even for the deeply conservative Idaho House.
"The smacking thing was the mandate," said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, who was in the House in 1990 and voted for HB 625. "I'm grateful that we care about the unborn, but I don't think this was the vehicle to stop abortions."
Another blow last week came when Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, made unfortunate remarks that soon went viral, about rape and abortion in Monday's closing debate on the bill.
Winder's words branded the Idaho Legislature as hostile to women and prompted doubts in the minds of anti-abortion conservatives. "I think plenty of people said, 'Man, do we really want to do that to these teenage girls?'" one told me.
Thirty-five percent of women terminating pregnancies in Idaho are 19 and under; another 34 percent are 20 to 24. Idaho's abortion rate is already low, one-third the national average.
The political risk is real. In Virginia, the Legislature's approval rating dropped 19 percentage points after it passed a similar bill March 1. By a 72 percent to 22 percent margin, Virginians said government should not make laws that try to convince women seeking an abortion to change their minds. That was precisely the aim of SB 1387's proponents.
LaRocco noted that the bill drew a Democratic challenger for Winder, newcomer James Mace. While Winder's district is heavily Republican, LaRocco said Mace will at least draw resources from the GOP. "Until now, Winder had a free ride," LaRocco said. "Mace could become a national figure and raise $50,000 or $100,000. I'm sending him money and I've never met the guy."
Ahrens said Republicans moved swiftly once they saw their re-election in jeopardy. "There's a tolerance point that's crossed and then you get a real gut reaction," said the former 14-year lawmaker. "That's when the passion comes out. What were quiet feelings get expressed at election time."
House State Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher was in the House in 1990 and remembers that election as the worst GOP showing since 1958.
He also recalls how Idaho returned to its Republican nature just two years later, once the message had been received. "We took it back in a big way," said Loertscher, R-Iona.
Loertscher, who supports SB 1387, now has it in a drawer. He hasn't yet pronounced its demise.
But after 18 years of GOP dominance, it's a pretty sure bet he and his fellow GOP leaders won't fiddle with reviving Democratic prospects again.
The editorial posted here is provided by permission of its original publisher and does not necessarily reflect the views of Idaho Public Television.
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