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GOP runs for cover on abortion legislation
February 18, 2004
by Matt Rosenberg

A State Senate bill to ensure parental notification when minors seek an abortion failed to make it out of committee last week as a key deadline passed. A vote wasn't even called for.

Two Republican swing votes withheld pledges of support, because any abortion-related legislation makes the state GOP leadership queasy. They think the crucial suburban electorate will somehow see 48-hour parental notification as a first step toward outlawing abortion.

For this, we have not only gutless GOP leaders to blame, but hard-line "March For Life" protesters who again swarmed Olympia several weeks ago, waving anti-abortion placards with phrases such as "Defend Life," and "Stop Abortion Now." They sent a message that wasn't about political reality, or compromise -- but absolutism.

It can be argued that this session wasn't the time for parental-notification legislation. But there's always an excuse. Now, it's an election year and a short session (albeit nonsense-plagued already). Then, it's a budget year. So it always goes.

Dan Kennedy, CEO of Human Life of Washington, an anti-abortion group favoring parental notification, says if lawmakers continue stonewalling on the notification issue, a statewide initiative is possible, and would probably pass.

Thirty-one states have enacted some form of parental notification. Kennedy said a 2002 poll he has seen showed support runs about 70 percent in Washington overall and even 53 percent among Democrats.

There are important caveats, which were included in this year's Senate bill. No notification should be given to an incestuous father responsible for the pregnancy; and no parental notification at all is required if it's a medical emergency.

Also key is the "judicial bypass," which allows any minor to skip parental notification -- for example, if she's from an abusive home. Instead, she gets court-appointed legal and health-care advice. Then, after private, expedited consultation with her, the judge authorizes the abortion, or doesn't.

Christine Charbonneau, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Western Washington, opposes mandated parental notification. She believes a young woman of any age is capable of making the decision on her own, and adds that most do talk to their parents, anyway.

Yet, the older the minors are, the less likely they are to inform their parents of their abortion decision, according to data cited by Planned Parenthood.

And minors already have to get parental consent to take an aspirin at school, visit a doctor, or have surgery. All that flies out the window if a minor is planning an abortion, says Dr. Susan Rutherford. She's an obstetrician-gynecologist who founded Evergreen Hospital's maternal-fetal medicine program.

Parental notification ensures a minor's gut-wrenching choice on motherhood, adoption, or abortion is made with the advice of "the people who have loved her and cared for her the most," says Colleen Stergios of Kent, a member of Eastside Human Life.

Rutherford says parents can make sure a good provider is chosen, and the daughter knows there are small but still quite significant risks from abortion. These include bleeding, infection and perforation of the uterus; and, in Rutherford's view, greater risk of breast cancer for young women who terminate their first pregnancy.

So how'd the bill run off the tracks? Sen. Val Stevens, R-Arlington, who chairs the Children, Family Service and Corrections Committee, told me Senate Majority Leader Bill Finkbeiner, R-Kirkland, worked behind the scenes to bottle it up in committee. Finkbeiner, first elected as a Democrat, insists he didn't.

Yet, anything related to abortion now clearly gives state GOP leaders the heebie-jeebies. With so many pro-choice swing voters in the fertile suburban crescent east of Seattle, why rock the boat? Especially in a big election year.

Charbonneau, of Planned Parenthood, voices one line of attack. "They bring up notification hoping family members will coerce the young woman out of the decision (to abort)."

Not so, says Sen. Joyce Mulliken, R-Ephrata, the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 6223. "Will all parents guide their daughters as I would? Maybe not. But it's a chance I'm willing to take to be reassured young girls in a difficult situation will have a better chance (for) a safer outcome, whatever decision is made."

I'm told the big hang-up wasn't getting a committee majority on the issue's merits, but that SB 6223 might have passed the full Senate with only a slim majority and faced poor prospects in the House. That, legislators told me, would leave them too exposed politically.

Washington lawmakers can't restore their credibility when they always run for cover on the tough stuff (think transportation and education, too).

Mulliken first sponsored parental-notification legislation in 1996. The issue isn't going away anytime soon.

Matt Rosenberg is a Seattle writer. E-mail him at oudist@nwlink.com; his Web log is at www.rosenblog.com. This column first appeared in The Seattle Times, February 11, 2004. Used by permission of author.

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