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Restrictive Idaho Anti-Abortion Bill Nears Final Vote

By Dean MillerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 20, 1990



BOISE, IDAHO

NATIONAL Right to Life Committee activists have persuaded the Idaho House and now a state Senate committee to adopt a bill that anti-abortion activists say will lead to a near-total prohibition of abortion here. In doing so, the Idaho House became the first legislative body in the United States to adopt the National Right to Life Committee's strategy - to write a law that the US Supreme Court will uphold, thereby outlawing abortion.

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Sponsors of the bill say it was drafted to provoke a test case to challenge the 1973 US Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion. National Right to Life lawyerss say that in last summer's decision in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, members of the Supreme Court - especially Justice Sandra Day O'Connor - signaled in the opinion that they are ready to review and possibly overturn the court's 1973 decision.

After three hours of debate, the Idaho House voted 47 to 36 earlier this month approved the bill. The Senate State Affairs Committee passed the bill last week and it goes to full Senate floor this week.

Some legal experts believe that if the measure becomes law, it will be struck down by the court, thereby fortifying Roe v. Wade.

Richard Wilkins, a law professor from Brigham Young University who co-wrote a leading brief in the Webster v. Reproductive Health Services case last year, says the Idaho bill's rape and maternal health exception is too narrow for the court to accept. Specifically, Justice O'Connor had indicated that she will strike down any law that places an undue burden on a woman seeking abortion for legitimate health reasons.

To some, the bill's passage is less than certain. David Adler, a political science professor and constitutional scholar at Idaho State University, says, ``It's the aim of the [National Right to Life] Committee to influence the Idaho Legislature to become a national laboratory. This won't happen, I'm quite sure.''

But supporters predict the bill will pass the Senate easily. Anti-abortion activists were elated by the outcome in the House. ``Idaho today has stood up for the nation,'' said Burke Balch, the National Right to Life Committee's legislative coordinator. ``This is the first full floor vote on a measure to prevent abortion as a means of birth control.''

The vote was not a party-line vote: Eight Democrats voted for the bill and 14 against. Among Republicans, the split was 39 to 22 in favor of the measure.

THE bill prohibits abortion except in cases of rape, incest, severe fetal deformity, or when pregnancy threatens a woman's health or life. In addition, it permits anyone to seek an injunction against any doctor planning to perform an abortion.

The measure also prohibits abortion after the point when a doctor determines the fetus to be viable, unless pregnancy threatens the mother's life.

Violators could be fined $10,000 for a first violation, $30,000 for a second, and $50,000 for subsequent violations.

Similar legislation has passed an Alabama House committee but has not yet come up for a vote on the House floor. A similar bill has failed in Utah. Others are stuck in committee in Minnesota and Maryland. All of these measures were supported by National Right to Life Committee affiliates.

Debate in the Idaho House focused on whether Idaho should lead or follow the national dialogue about abortion and whether the state should take on the legal cost of a Supreme Court case.

``Who would have thought that the quiet, compassionate, and industrious families of Idaho would be called upon to be captains of this national crusade? Let the storm pass over the people of Idaho,'' said Rep. Jim Hansen (D) of Boise.

But a co-sponsor, Rep. L. Ed Brown (R) of Pocatello, argued that Idaho should address the controversy head-on.

``I don't think we can treat this abortion issue an inch at a time,'' Mr. Brown said. ``We must challenge the court. ... Why shouldn't Idaho take the lead?''

Others simply said they resent out-of-state activists influencing the debate. ``The National Right to Life Committee is trying to make a guinea pig out of the Idaho Legislature,'' said Rep. Gayle Wilde (R) of McCall. ``Other legislatures have said, `No, thanks.' I think we in Idaho should do the same.''