Utah Built on Idaho's Mistakes
Idaho relied on national lobbying; Utah's bill succeeded on patience and local consensus. ABORTION
BOISE, IDAHO — THREE months to a defeat in Idaho, three days to a victory in Utah. Anti-abortion activists won an important victory in Utah last month by learning from some mistakes made by their comrades last year in Idaho.
Politically, these two Rocky Mountain states are more than neighbors, they're soul mates. They were the most supportive states in Ronald Reagan's two successful presidential campaigns. Their 1991 legislatures are predominantly Republican and male.
In 1990, Idaho's House and Senate adopted legislation that prohibited abortion except in cases of incest, rape, severe fetal deformity, or when the pregnant woman's health was threatened.
After three months of debate that put Idaho in the national spotlight and sparked major protests statewide, the bill was vetoed by Gov. Cecil Andrus.
``The main thing we learned [from Idaho] was to communicate with our legislators on a local level rather than a national level,'' says Rosa Goodnight, president of Right to Life of Utah. ``National Right to Life came into Idaho and did a lot of lobbying and we didn't [have] that.''
The principal lobbyist for the Idaho bill was National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) legislative coordinator Burke J. Balch.
``There's no question ... Mr. Balch's approach was very legalistic and his strong point was not public relations,'' says Rep. Gary Montgomery (R) of Boise, who co-sponsored Idaho's bill.
Representative Montgomery says he counseled Utah anti-abortion activists and legislators to downplay their national affiliations and aspirations.
``I suggested that there's wisdom in not having any one organization or entity identified as the primary proponent or sponsor of the bill,'' Montgomery says. ``On an issue which is that sensitive, you've got to have a broad coalition of support.''
Kerry Uhlenkott, the director of Right to Life of Idaho, says she consulted extensively with her Utah colleagues. She says pro-choice activists were able last year to paint her organization as a group of radicals.
``They made us and the sponsors appear so extremist,'' Ms. Uhlenkott says. ``We were never able to recover from that.''
Ms. Goodnight says her group made sure large numbers of ordinary Utah residents testified at 20 hearings held statewide during the past year. Thus, when the anti-abortion bill emerged from the study committee, it was hard to call it Right to Life's bill.
Still, the Utah bill reads like a mirror image of the Idaho proposal, the language of which was strongly influenced by the NRLC. It permits abortions only in cases of rape or incest or when the health of either the pregnant woman or the fetus is threatened.
In addition to downplaying their national agenda, Goodnight says she and other strategists tried to avoid a long and drawn-out debate like Idaho's, which gave the opposition time to mobilize.
In Utah, the Legislature took just three days to discuss and adopt the most restrictive abortion law in the union. Republican Gov. Norman Bangerter promptly signed it into law.
The national media, preoccupied by an impending recession and by the war in the Persian Gulf, buried the story.
Among legislators, there was little support for extended debate, says Steven Taggart, a Utah legislative operative who sought advice from several Idaho legislators and activists.
Pro-choice activists say the passage of the Utah law was a rigged deal. ``Someone set a timetable and someone set an end result,'' says Karrie Galloway, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah.
``It's been likened to a railroad train, I think of it more as that bullet train in Japan; it was the most discouraging legislative process I've ever witnessed.''
As anti-abortion groups hoped, pro-choice groups will seek to have the law struck down in court, Ms. Galloway says. Meanwhile, national pro-choice groups have encouraged skiers to boycott Utah ski areas. There's also a move afoot to steer the International Olympic Commmittee away from choosing Utah as a site for future winter games.
But that's a rear-guard action.
With the enactment of Utah's law, there are at least three abortion cases headed for the United States Supreme Court. The US territory of Guam adopted a law last year that permits abortion only when the pregnant woman's life is endangered. Pennsylvania also adopted a restrictive abortion law. Both were found unconstitutional by US district courts and are now on appeal to federal appellate courts.
Any of the three laws gives anti-abortion groups a chance to challenge Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
``This is just a first step in a multistep process that it is going to take to overturn Roe v. Wade,'' says Idaho's Uhlenkott. ``It's probably best termed as a chipping-away.''
She says the process will take years, but she compares the Right to Life movement to the movement to abolish slavery.
The first abolitionists organized themselves in the 1600s and the Emancipation Proclamation was not signed until 1863.
To Uhlenkott, Roe v. Wade was just a temporary setback. ``That was our Dred Scott,'' she says, referring to the 1857 decision in which the Supreme Court upheld the notion that slaves were property and slave owners held property rights over them.
``It took three constitutional amendments and a civil war and look at how racism is still part of our culture,'' she says. ``It [the abolition of abortion] is just going to be a long process.''