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Washington’s 1970 Abortion Reform Victory

The Referendum 20 Campaign

by Angie Weiss

The body of Raisa Trytiak was found in garbage dump north of Seattle on February 9, 1967. It appeared at first that the 24-year old Seattle bank employee had been strangled, but the coroner determined that she had died following an illegal abortion. A former construction worker confessed to helping with the procedure and pled guilty to manslaughter. One month later, on March 6, 1967, 22-year old Elizabeth Zach Staley died in Olympia from another botched abortion. These are but two of many women who lost their lives because Washington State law prohibited abortions except when the life of the mother was in danger.1

But Raisa Trytiak and Elizabeth Staley were among the last victims. Because of their tragic stories, a group of Seattle residents launched a campaign to change the law and three years later, in 1970, Washington became one of only a handful of states to permit abortions in the early months of a pregnancy and the only one to enact its reformed law through a vote of the people. Several years before the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that abortion was a constitutional right, Washington voters approved Referendum 20, establishing a limited but very important right to seek an abortion.2

This report explores the campaign, both in the legislature, which authorized the ballot measure, then as it went to the voters in the fall of 1970. Approved by Washington citizens with 56.49% of the vote, Referendum 20 succeeded because its campaign strategists swayed undecided voters with a focused message of abortion as a healthcare issue instead of solely an issue of women’s choice. Key too were compromises enacted in the legislature requiring that a woman seeking an abortion must gain the permission of her spouse or guardian, that she would have to live in Washington state for 90 days, and that the procedure could take place only within the first four months of pregnancy.

Although these restrictions were not favored by many of the proponents, the compromises led to an unexpected coalition in support of reform. It would come as a surprise today that the legislative votes in the state House and Senate to authorize the referendum came from both political parties before the bill was signed and sent to the voters by Governor Dan Evans, a Republican. It would come as a further surprise that the organization leading the effort to decriminalize abortion was thoroughly bipartisan and included as many men as women.

A Dangerous Felony

Abortion was not always illegal in the United States, but by the early 1900s every state had criminalized the procedure. Washington revised its law in 1909, making it a crime to end a pregnancy except to save the life of the mother. This led to illegal abortions being performed without standardized safety or sanitation, Assisting with an abortion was a felony punishable by five years in prison, to which manslaughter charges could potentially be added. Regardless, thousands of women broke the law and many suffered for it, some dying, others permanently insured. By the late 1960s, some hospitals were willing to stretch the law, granting a limited number of “therapeutic” abortions provided a specially appointed committee of physicians said it was medically necessary. The double standard that ensued stratified which women would be able to obtain abortions safely, where “wealthy women went to private physicians who … interpreted legal exceptions for therapeutic abortions broadly enough to satisfy their patients”, and low-income women were left with whatever they could afford.3 But for most women, the “back-alley” abortion was the only way to terminate an unwanted or even dangerous pregnancy.4

Efforts to reform abortion laws gathered momentum across the country in the late 1960s, aided by the women’s liberation movement that had emerged to challenge the whole complex of gender inequalities and restrictions on women’s life choices and opportunities. The National Organization for Women (NOW) and other women’s rights activists joined with Planned Parenthood in considering the right to an abortion “an essential ingredient of women’s moral autonomy and freedom.” Their campaigns bore fruit in several states. In 1970, Washington, Hawaii, New York, and Alaska legalized abortion.5

Washington was unique because abortion was legalized through a popular referendum by the voters, not by the legislature. A referendum in Washington State requires approval from the state House, Senate, and Governor to be placed on the ballot. The voters then can vote to “approve” or “reject” the measure to decide its outcome. Referendum 20 was eventually “superseded” by the decision of Roe v. Wade, and then by Initiative 120, passed by voters in 1991, which embedded the key guarantees of Roe in state law.6

Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform

The campaign for Referendum 20 was launched not long after Raisa Trytiak’s death became news. While NOW and other groups had been working for several years on the issue, a small discussion group that later evolved into the Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform (WCAR) would design the legislative campaign that led to R-20. It started in the office of Dr. Samuel Goldenberg, a Seattle psychologist, who was concerned that some of his clients who wanted to obtain an abortion could not do so under the tricky process that required approval from a “hospital physician committee.” 7 In 1968, Goldenberg created the “Citizens’ Abortion Study Group” that met regularly to explore the many issues related to abortion. Early members of this group included Marilyn Ward, a volunteer lobbyist of children’s issues who later became the lobbyist for the bill that became Referendum 20, Republican State Senator Joel Pritchard, and Reverend Everett J. Jensen, General Secretary of the Washington State Council of Churches. After meeting for almost a year, the group “had reached a consensus that the law needed to be changed.”8

The founders of Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform worked with legislators from the Seattle and King County area to introduce a bill in the state House and Senate during the 1969 legislative session. The House bill was sponsored by Representative Bill Chatalas (D-Seattle), and the Senate companion bill by Senator Joel Pritchard (R-Seattle). The House version of the bill did not make it through the House Health and Welfare Committee, and the Senate version was waylaid in the Senate Rules Committee.9 Despite pressure by abortion reform and women’s groups, with more than 1,000 attendees at a rally on March 28, 1969, many legislators were not willing to take a stand on the controversial issue. Frank Atwood, the Republican Senate Minority Leader, said “he view[ed] the issue as ‘so hot and divisive’ that it will eventually wind up before the voters.” 10 The 1969 legislative session ended with no further movement on the abortion bill.

The “Extraordinary” Legislative Session – January 1970

Goldenberg, Ward, Pritchard, and the other reformers were determined to try again. In January of 1970, they had their chance. Governor Dan Evans called for the first “Extraordinary” session of the state legislature, now known as a “Special Session.” During this additional legislative session, the floor calendar for bills to be considered was reset, meaning policy bills thought to have no chance of passage came into play once more.11

The Citizens’ Abortion Study Group, newly renamed as Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform (WCAR), decided to seize the opportunity presented by the special session. In an Executive Committee meeting held months before the legislature was to meet, members voted that the organization’s purpose should be to “influence the legislature to pass its abortion bill in the special session of January 1970” and to “carry on education, fundraising, and lobbying” and apply “pressure on legislators when and where it [was] needed.”12 Seattle Republican Senator Pritchard, a founding member of the original group, agreed to reintroduce the bill that had stalled in the Senate the year before with Senators Robert Bailey (D-19, Grays Harbor) and Francis Holman (R-1, part King) as cosponsors.13

Meanwhile in the House, supporters managed to pass the bill from the previous session on January 24th, 1970. Potentially one of the most liberal abortion laws in the country, the House version simply removed all criminal penalties for women seeking abortions and from the physicians who would perform them, establishing an unrestricted right to seek an abortion.15 This created a strategic challenge for WCAR since it was clear that the more conservative Senate would not approve the House measure. Worried that the legislature might again fail to pass a new law, Senator Pritchard and WCAR leaders calculated that even some legislators reluctant to support a new law would agree to a referendum that would put the issue to a vote of the people. This would require a new bill that would have to pass both chambers, be signed by the governor, and be approved on the ballot by the people of Washington with a simple majority.16

The new abortion reform bill, Senate Bill No. 68, was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee upon reintroduction on January 12, 1970.17 In hearings before the Committee, Pritchard faced determined opposition from Senators who wanted to make the proposed language more restrictive. Senator William A. Gissberg (39-D, Snohomish County) and Senator William S. Day (D-4, part Spokane) interrogated what it meant for a woman to be “quick with child” and argued that procedures should only be allowed in the first few months of pregnancy and only with the consent of the husband or parent. Sen. Gissberg moved to add the following restrictions:

“(a) with her prior consent, and, if married and residing with her husband and if unmarried and under the age of eighteen years, with the prior consent of her husband or legal guardians, respectively, (b) if the woman has resided in this state for at least ninety days prior to the date of termination…“’18

Sen. Day further amended Sen. Gissberg’s amendment to clarify “of a woman not quick with child … and not more than four lunar months after conception.”19

As the amendments were debated in the Judiciary Committee, WCAR faced a dilemma. Such restrictions were contrary to the idea that a woman should control her own healthcare choices, which had been the firm position of Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform and other groups. This was a difficult decision for Marilyn Ward, WCAR’s lobbyist at the time. The amendments were strongly opposed by women’s rights groups, but seemed necessary to gain the approval of the mostly male conservative Senate. Ward “agreed, and … got raked over the coals …” The choice, she decided was “are you going to lose on principle, or win on compromise?”20WCAR and Ward’s decision to compromise to garner the votes for what became Referendum 20 was integral to the success of the bill’s passage, and later the referendum campaign.

Ward was a realist and at other moments negotiated additional compromises in order to advance the campaign. That was the instinct behind the WCAR decision to have men, and particularly male doctors, in key leadership positions. Throughout much of the campaign Dr. Goldenberg was the public face of the movement. Ward and others calculated that the respected psychologist would be more likely to sway male Senators than more radical women’s rights groups. In her interview with Cassandra Tate she mentions another compromise. She intervened to stop a planned demonstration by women’s rights activists from Seattle’s Central District who favored the bill, worried that it might scare off conservative Senators.21

The amended SB No. 68 narrowly passed the Senate 25-23, with one Senator absent. Appendix 1 shows the final senate vote and reveals something important. The vote was thoroughly bipartisan, with 14 Republicans and 11 Democrats voting in favor.22 It is also noteworthy that most supporters in King County, the most populous county in the state, were Republicans, while the King County opposition in the Senate came largely from Democrats.23

Floor Debate in the House

The House accepted the Senate’s amendments to the bill in early February 1970, but the process was certainly not easy. As in the Senate, House members did not divide along party lines as they are understood today, where Democrats mostly support access to abortions, while Republicans often oppose them. Instead the main opponent of the 1970 bill was a female Democrat from Spokane, Representative Margaret Hurley. Hurley proposed that the bill be indefinitely postponed. In recorded audio tapes from the House floor session of February 3, 1970, she can be heard expressing disgust that the “House would even consider this vicious kind of legislation.”24 Representative Gary Grant called for a roll-call vote, and Hurley’s motion to postpone failed. Rep. Lois North (D - King County), another of the handful of female legislators serving in 1970, supported of SB No. 68. She can be heard explaining that the Senate version of the bill was far narrower than the one which had passed the House during the regular session. Rep. North warned that any changes proposed to the Senate bill by the House would kill it because the Senate version only passed by a two-vote margin, “we need to be prepared to stand by Senate Bill 68 exactly as it is before us … The Senate is in no mood to go to a conference on this issue.”25

This discussion of the tenuous nature of the bill led Rep. Hurley to introduce several amendments that would have further restricted a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion. First, she tried to make it so that a woman would need a recommendation from three different doctors before the procedure, and then attempted to amend the bill to make it a felony for a doctor to perform an abortion. However, Rep. Hurley’s attempts to stop the bill were unsuccessful, and it was moved to third readings in the House.26

A bill is most likely to be moved to third readings, and be voted on the floor when leadership already knows it has the votes to pass. There were several remarks on the floor before the vote. Representative North’s speech was indicative of the talking points WCAR would use in the coming referendum campaign. Rep. North noted that this bill would “drive the illegal, unqualified abortionists out of business.” She explained that “many, many women in desperation have submitted to treatment at the hands of unlicensed quacks, only to suffer untold misery. With Engrossed Senate Bill 68, safe and legal medical care will be available without exorbitant cost when and where it is needed.” Rep. North also expressed support for the referendum clause, to let the voters decide how they felt about the issue.27

Once again, Representative Hurley spoke against the bill, and said it would end thousands of lives. Other representatives made floor speeches about the circumstances of the bill, such as their displeasure with being forced to accommodate the Senate’s amendments. A few quoted the Bible as part of their remarks. Others said they had voted against the House version of the bill, but approved of the safeguards in the Senate version. After much debate and discussion, ESB No. 68 passed the concurrence process in the House 64-31, with four members absent.28 After the bill was again reconciled with the Senate, it was sent to Governor Dan Evans who signed it quickly. He had been a supporter from the beginning. And so the stage was set for one of the most contentious ballot measure campaigns in Washington state history.

The Voice for the Unborn

In May 1970, a statewide group that opposed the passage of R-20 was formed. It was named the Voice for the Unborn (VFU) and was led by Mrs. Alden Olsen. The other members were Mrs. Ahnquist, Mrs. Bennett, Kenneth VanDerhoef, David Warmuth, and Wes Holbein. It had the support of many Catholics and members of socially conservative Protestant churches. The Voice for the Unborn focused their argument against the approval of R-20 on the idea that life began at conception, and that the abortion of the fetus was a moral wrong. They launched their campaign with a five-point argument against legalizing abortion. VFU argued that abortion was not consistent with current legal practices, that it allowed “barbaric surgical techniques”, that the law was “regressive” in the protection of life, that the legalization of abortion in other states did not deter illegal abortions, and finally, that it would create new problems for hospital infrastructure.

What we know about the Voice for the Unborn comes mostly from their newspaper ads and from pamphlets collected by their opponents; organizational records were not located. But the available documents provide a sense of the VFU campaign, showing that they focused on the importance of the life of the fetus and the negative social consequences that would result if abortion were legalized. The VFU used controversial and disturbing advertising to draw attention to the issue. And much of their effort went into that advertising, although Voice for the Unborn had an impressive field operation as well, with a reported plan to knock on over 40,000 doors between September 17th and the general election.29 However VFU’s efforts were ultimately unsuccessful in stopping the passage of Referendum 20, and they might have even been a contributing factor in its passage. By comparing the infrastructure of Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform’s campaign and its press coverage versus that of VFU, it is evident that WCAR was better organized to convince voters to approve Referendum 20.

Restructuring WCAR

Once the referendum had passed both houses of the legislature and had been signed by Governor Evans, the real work for WCAR began. The members of Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform needed to build a statewide campaign to win the election. To do that the organization changed its internal structure and leadership. Dr. Goldenberg stepped down as chairman—although he remained involved—and Victoria Livingston resigned her position as Executive Director for “personal reasons not related to the job” on March 28th. Livingston advised that the next WCAR leadership should consist of a male chairman with a medical background, and that the Executive Director be a “fulltime, top-notch female executive.”30 Senator Pritchard and the rest of the team began to draft a public relations message. Pritchard suggested that WCAR focus on reaching out to moderate voters. Instead of relying on women, “doctors should be out front, concerned about the health of our patients.” Instead of focusing on the idea of legalizing abortion, Pritchard urged WCAR to promote the safeguards of the bill, asserting that “women’s rights people [would] vote for us anyway.”31 It was agreed that the best way to promote Referendum 20 would be to focus on winning over moderate voters by focusing on the health benefits and to emphasize the support the medical community’s support for the measure.

Between April and August of 1970, the members of the Executive Committee of WCAR met regularly in the cafeteria of Swedish Hospital at 7:30 AM to plan the campaign.32 Although most of the Executive Committee meeting minutes have been lost, the minutes that are available provide a glimpse into the internal deliberations of a successful statewide campaign. In April of 1970, Genevieve Lane was hired as the temporary Executive Director. Her political insight proved valuable to the effort. She emphasized that “dignity and a low-key tone” would be the best strategy.33 To build the campaign after the legislative session required re-contacting their members across the state, and to define their role in relation to the Referendum 20 campaign. Lane believed the methods of contact that had been used during the session were “inconsistent” and that “they have not been in any way been related to the true campaign effort”34 Lane served as the Executive Director of WCAR until June 30, 1970, when she was replaced by Helen Bonds.35

Although WCAR could start planning and raising money immediately after the legislative session, they did not plan to roll out the full campaign until after the September primary election. Referendum 20 would be on the November general election ballot. The recruitment of volunteers was essential to the campaign’s ability to contact as many voters as possible, especially because the Voice for the Unborn had reportedly recruited volunteers to knock on 40,000 doors after the primary election.36 In a newsletter to supporters, Bonds emphasized that “doorbellers should not go to work until after the primary (Sept. 15) so as not to confuse the voters into thinking the issue is on the primary ballot.”37

For their message to reach the public, the infrastructure for the grassroots campaign would need to be put in place. The April meeting established the early foundation of the campaign, with volunteers already staffing the Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform office in downtown Seattle from 9 AM – 3 PM five days a week.38 However, they needed to reach voters all over the state and that could not be done for free. WCAR board members began to request donations of $50 – 250 from members statewide, and built a database of contacts from the organizations that supported the proposal during the legislative session, such as nurses and social workers’ advocacy groups.39 As Mrs. Campbell, a volunteer from Queen Anne, put it, the organization “ha[d] extremely limited funds, for advertising, so it … [was] extremely important that [they] present[ed] their viewpoint … to the voters through person-to-person contact”40

The Ground Game

As early as June of 1970, representatives of WCAR formed county chapters led by volunteers and coordinated by a Central Committee. The campaign was strong in Seattle and needed to establish a presence in more conservative areas of the state, particularly east of the Cascade Mountains. By June 8th, committees were created in “Spokane, Tri-Cities, Walla Walla, Tacoma, Pullman, Yakima, Vancouver, Wenatchee, Everett, Olympia, [and] Bellingham.” 41 By June 22nd, the campaign announced that “area chairmen” “had been appointed to 14 cities throughout the state.” While Genevieve Lane was the Executive Director, she recommended that the “individual committees throughout the state should organize under their own banner … but in order to keep some control, [WCAR] should keep in constant communication with out-of-city groups and have constant report with them.” Lane established that these committees would be provided with talking points, press materials, and other campaign supplies.42

These recommendations were further implemented under Helen Bonds as the grassroots effort increased at the end of the summer of 1970. Bonds supplied the county committees with “speakers kits,” bumper stickers, buttons, fliers, and training.43 It was common for the county chairmen to recruit volunteers through “coffee hours” that functioned as volunteer recruitment and information sessions about R-20 where there would be “an informed and unemotional discussion of the issue.”44 Much of this recruitment was urged before the end of the September primary election. County chairmen were also advised to gather additional contacts through their local legislators of those who had written letters to their office favoring abortion reform. By August, even more branches of WCAR committees had formed for Aberdeen-Hoquiam, Arlington, Ellensburg, Ephrata-Soap Lake, Longview-Kelso, Mount Vernon, Port Angeles, and Washougal.45

Who were the volunteers who worked on the ground to pass R-20? Early on, they were described as “reliable and intelligent types,” who worked in the Seattle campaign headquarters, and many who planned to work from home and be “called on as the campaign intensifie[d].”46 The information available on the volunteer area committee chairs shows that most of the committee chairs were married women and male doctors. Several committees were chaired jointly by married couples. One chair was a professor at Central Washington State College, and there was a student co-chair in Bellingham, presumably at Western Washington State College.47 It is not clear if all of the female committee chairs were married, or if the title of “Mrs.” was applicable to both single and married women at the time. This base of volunteers was expanded further as numerous groups endorsed R-20 and committed to help pass the measure.

Correspondence between Helen Bonds and the committee chairs gives context to the different challenges faced by each county. Spokane’s chairman, Dr. Thomas Reed, described the abortion measure as “the hottest thing going” in the Spokane area because of its “large Catholic population … and … religious fundamentalists, and a very politically conservative populace.” Dr. Reed predicted that his chapter would have “the toughest battle in the state.”48 Each county had varying chances of winning approval for R-20 based on its voter turnout and political preferences. It was the job of these volunteers to educate as many voters in their jurisdictions as they could about Referendum 20, and to persuade them to support it using their own personal reasons, and the message created by WCAR.

Family Rights or Women’s Rights?

By portraying Referendum 20 as a commonsense medical issue, Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform was able to appeal to moderate, undecided voters. That was also the intent behind the campaign’s principle slogan: “Let Each Family Have the Right to Decide.” The message– “Let Each Family Have the Right to Decide. Vote for Abortion Reform. Vote for Referendum 20.” –was displayed on bumper stickers across the state. 49 In adopting this slogan, the executive committee heeded the early advice of Senator Pritchard who had urged an appeal to middle-ground voters who did not have a firm stance for or against abortion. WCAR had learned in the Legislature that a proposal with restrictions requiring the consent of a husband or guardian, would be necessary to gain sufficient support. Now in its public campaign WCAR built on the idea of a family’s right to decide. This was not what women’s liberation organizations wanted to hear, but it appears that there were few strong complaints. From Executive Committee meeting records and Marilyn Ward’s oral history,50 it is evident that radical women’s rights organizations played an important role in the passage of Referendum 20, but that they were not included in the internal deliberations of WCAR’s strategy. By portraying abortion reform as a medical issue and a family freedom of choice issue while keeping radical women’s groups at arm’s length, WCAR gained the credibility it sought, winning a broad base of endorsements from dozens of mainstream groups, and achieving mostly positive press coverage.

Like the Voice for the Unborn, Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform spent heavily on newspaper ads. Most WCAR ads emphasized safety. An ad placed by the organization in late October of 1970 read: “_It isn’t pleasant to think about abortion, but it isn’t pleasant to think about women mutilating themselves and ruining their lives either,_” which referred to the gruesome practice of self-induced abortions. The ad continues with “Remember: abortion reform is overwhelmingly endorsed by doctors, clergymen, nurses, and social workers.” This appeal to medical expertise was the key ingredient in the WCAR strategy. By showing that the procedure was medically sound, and supported by many members of the clergy, abortion was shown to be a proposal favored by a broad base of highly responsible authority figures. The ad ends with “they know the tragedy caused by our present laws. They believe in this humane and compassionate reform. Vote for Referendum 20.”51

In one case, WCAR issued an advertisement that struck a different note. “We’ve heard from the voice for the unborn, now let’s hear from the abused child, the abandoned wife, the poverty-stricken mother of four …”52 This ad raised a new set of issues, noting the social problems that might follow from unwanted pregnancies, problems of poverty, neglect and abuse. This however was not the campaign’s usual message which mostly focused tightly on medical concerns, medical authorities, and family freedom to choose.

While the WCAR ads were precise and dignified, the Voice for the Unborn relied on strong inflammatory words and images to inform voters and convince them to oppose Referendum 20. VFU often used images of fetuses, or replicas of fetuses in their advertising. The most controversial of the ads were displayed on Seattle buses and showed a picture of a sixteen-week-old fetus with the caption “Kill Referendum 20, Not Me.” The transit advertising agency had initially rejected the ads as “not being up to [their] standards,” but compromised after VFU threatened a lawsuit. The agency insisted that the caption was too inflammatory so VFU changed it to “Let Him Live.”53 The week before the election, VFU placed an ad in the Seattle Times depicting a replica of a fetus being held in someone’s hand with the caption “Life or Death?” above it, and “His Future’s in Your Hands.”54

Because of the disturbing nature of many of their proposed ads, VFU often had difficulty placing them. When the organization tried to purchase billboard advertisements opposing R-20, opponents challenged them not only for the graphic materials displayed but also for their lack of disclosure of the organization that funded them as required under state law. A quote from a retired advertising executive in a press release from WCAR described the billboards as “one of the worst forms of visual pollution … if the opponents of abortion-reform are willing to have these reprehensible signs erected, then they should have the courage to identify themselves.”55

The VFU ad choices may have hurt the organization’s overall media strategy. News articles about the campaign sometimes focused as much on the controversy over campaign tactics as on the issue of abortion itself. As a result, R-20’s opponents struggled to achieve favorable news coverage.

Meanwhile other organizations sponsored ads in support of Referendum 20, giving the impression that the cause of abortion reform had broad appeal. Prominent among them were organizations of medical professionals. The Committee for Abortion Reform, a group separate from WCAR, placed an ad in the Seattle Times that emphasized the support of R-20 by various psychologist organizations: “The opponents of abortion reform have argued that abortion is a social-psychological problem. Let’s look at what the Psychologists say about Referendum 20.” The text explained the Washington State Psychological Association’s stance on the issue and urged readers to “join Washington’s Psychologists, Doctors, Nurses, Social Workers, and other groups that have seriously considered this issue, and have endorsed Referendum 20.”56Similar ads appeared sponsored by mental health professionals, showing a long list of endorsers, also ads by nurses’ advocacy groups, and one by the Washington State Public Health Association.57

The reform campaign also emphasized the support of non-medical groups, including religious organizations. Early on, the Washington State Council of Churches, an ecumenical body long associated with liberal positions, joined the campaign.58 Reverend Everett J. Jensen, the General Secretary of the Council served on WCAR’s executive committee. More surprising was the support of a group of Catholics who took a position at variance with their Church. The Catholics for Individual Responsibility Concerning Abortion (CIRCA) announced that they supported the individual’s right to choose abortion, although they did not support it personally. Their call for the tolerance of all views, whether religious or not, was one of the more exciting moments of the election. 59

WCARs practice of lining up endorsements from various organizations paid further dividends as newspapers covered press conferences and turned the announcements into news articles. Most of the Seattle Times’ coverage of the referendum campaign consisted of reporting on the endorsements it received from the Washington State Nurses Association,60 the Washington State Parents and Teachers’ Association (PTA),61 the Disciples of Christ, the regional assembly of the Christian Church,62 the Washington State Society of Pediatrics,63 and many other groups. The full list of endorsements for Referendum 20 includes more than 25 organizations.64 The opposition campaign also gained press coverage when organizations announced their position against Referendum 20.

The Vote

On November 3, 1970, abortion was legalized by the voters of Washington State. Referendum 20 won the support with 56.49 per cent of those who voted in the 1970 general election. There were important regional variations in the pattern of support. For the most part, voters in counties to the west of the Cascade Mountains voted in favor of R-20, with the exception of Lewis, Cowlitz, and Wahkiakum Counties. Voter turnout was particularly important in King, Grays Harbor, and Pacific Counties, where more than 70 per cent of the voters approved R-20. King County was pivotal. Yes votes exceeded No votes by a margin of more than 100,000.65That western Washington supported the measure would surprise no one today, because for several decades Puget Sound counties have carried elections for liberal candidates and socially liberal ballot measures. For example, the recent Referendum 74 to legalize same-sex marriage in Washington State in 2012, demonstrated that counties with the highest density of population often determine the verdict of the election. 66

To the east of the Cascades, every county opposed R-20 except for Whitman and Columbia Counties.67 A post-election recap letter sent to WCAR supporters indicated that the campaign won 21 counties, eight of which did not have WCAR campaign branches in them. WCAR lost eighteen counties.68 As predicted by the volunteer chapter chairman in Spokane, Spokane County posed the greatest challenge; the referendum lost by more than 11,000 votes.69 One factor in this could have been the consistent public opposition to the measure by Representative Hurley, who gave the impassioned floor speech about the bill that authorized R-20. Every Senator who had a portion of Spokane County in their district, regardless of their political party, voted against the bill during the 1970 legislative session (see appendix 1).70 This was nearly true for every House member with a portion of Spokane County in their district except for Representatives A.J. Pardini and Gerald Saling, both Republicans. Surprisingly, despite nearly uniform opposition by the elected representatives in the Spokane area, the Spokesman-Review editorial board endorsed the ballot measure.71 Ultimately Spokane County had the largest margin of loss of any county in the state.72

WCAR leaders were surprised to win several counties—especially Yakima County, where R-20 led by 2,300 votes.73 Going into the election Yakima County was understood to be up for grabs. The elected legislators who had Yakima County in their district did not vote unanimously for or against R-20 in the legislature. Senator Jim Matson (R-14) voted against the measure, while Representatives Chet Hatfield and Marjorie Lynch, both Republicans from the 14th District, voted for the measure. Representatives Sid Morrison, and Irving Newhouse, Republicans who had parts of Yakima County, voted against the measure (appendix 1). The Yakima Herald-Republic had issued a bold endorsement of the ballot measure that might have tipped the balance in the face of the split views of those who represented that area. The editorial admitted that “Referendum 20, changing the 1909 abortion law, is perhaps the most controversial, emotion-filled issue on the ballot.” It cited the large number of harmful, illegal abortions that could be prevented if abortions were safe and legal.74 This message and the work of volunteers from various organizations in Yakima, including WCAR and the League of Women Voters,75 who held community events, contributed to the success of the measure in a “swing” county.

The votes that decided the passage of R-20 did not fall within the same party lines they might have today. The political landscape of Washington in 2012 shows that districts represented by Democrats are predominantly west of the Cascades, and predominantly Republican to the east.76 However, in 1970 many urban areas of Seattle were represented by Republicans.77 Both parties were represented in the votes for Referendum 20.


The efforts of Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform’s grassroots campaign and message to voters were effective. In a letter to supporters, Helen Bonds said “the feedback we [got was] that our campaign was ‘educational’ and ‘in good taste’ … the contrast was striking in the way the two campaigns were conducted.”78 She was convinced that the careful message of WCAR that emphasized abortion as a health care choice to be made by a family resonated with voters more than the controversial campaign message preferred by the Voice for the Unborn. WCAR’s careful development of its message with the input of legislators, health care providers, clergy, its grassroots volunteers, seems to have been the key to the success of R-20.

Although campaigns for legalized abortion in the 1970s are now associated in the public mind with the Women’s Liberation movement, this study has shown that the reality was much more complicated. In Washington, the campaign that passed the nation’s only abortion reform ballot measure began in the office of a male psychologist and involved men as well as women at very stage. It was a bipartisan effort, dependent upon Republicans at least as much as Democrats. Essential too was the medicalization of the issue. WCAR framed this as a matter of health and safety and won the battle for votes by demonstrating the overwhelming support of doctors, nurses, psychologists and other health professionals. And perhaps key to success, first in the legislature and then in the election, was a tough set of compromises that limited a woman’s right to choose and turned decisions about early stage abortions into a family decision. “Let Each Family Have the Right to Decide” proved to be a winning formula in 1970.

copyright © Angie Weiss 2013
HSTAA 498 Autumn 2012
HSTAA 499 Spring 2013

1 “When Abortion was Illegal (and Deadly): Seattle’s Maternal Death Toll” by James Gregory

2Cassandra Tate has written about the campaign for “Abortion Reform in Washington State” Essay 5313. My research deepens the story. Principle sources for this report include Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform Records, 1963-1970, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries; records of the state legislature including the Senate Journal and House Journal, various Washington State newspapers; and interviews conducted by Cassandra Tate for

3 “Abortion Politics in American States,” Segers, Mary C., Byrnes, Timothy A., editors. M.E. Sharpe. 1995. Page 2.

4 “Abortion Reform in Washington State”. Essay 5313. Cassandra Tate, February 26, 2003.

5 “Abortion Politics in American States,” Segers, Mary C., Byrnes, Timothy A., editors. M.E. Sharpe. 1995. Page 2. Page 4.

6 “The Current Law in Washington State is Initiative 120—The Reproductive Privacy Act”

7 “Dr. Samuel Goldenberg recalls the campaign to liberalize Washington’s abortion laws” Essay 2656; “Abortion Reform in Washington State”

8 Ibid.

9 “Marilyn Ward recalls the campaign to reform Washington’s abortion law.” Essay 2675.

10 Seattle Times. “The Historic Seattle Times, 1900-1984” March 29, 1969. Page 30, Section 2.

11 “Section 12 (2): Sessions, When – Duration.” Washington State Constitution.

12 Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform Records, 1963-1970. Box 1, Folder 5, “Executive Committee Meeting Minutes”. September 9, 1969.

13 “Appendix, Senate Roster.” Senate Journal of the Second Extraordinary Session Forty-First Legislature of the State of Washington at Olympia, the State Capital. Convened January 12, 1970, Adjourned Sine Die February 12, 1970.” Snyder, Sid, Ed. State Printing Plant, Olympia, Wash., 1970. 576-581.

15 Seattle Times. “The Historic Seattle Times, 1900-1984” February 5, 1970. Page A4.

16 Washington State Constitution. “Article III Legislative Department.” Section 1 (b-d).

17 “Introduction, First Reading, and Committee Referral.” Senate Journal of the Second Extraordinary Session Forty-First Legislature of the State of Washington at Olympia, the State Capital. Convened January 12, 1970, Adjourned Sine Die February 12, 1970.” Snyder, Sid, Ed. State Printing Plant, Olympia, Wash., 1970. January 27, 1970. 28.

18 Ibid., “Report of Committee.” 233-234.

19 Ibid.

20 “Marilyn Ward recalls the campaign to reform Washington’s abortion law.” Essay 2675.

21 Ibid.

22 “Vote on Final Passage, Roll Call.” Senate Journal of the Second Extraordinary Session Forty-First Legislature of the State of Washington at Olympia, the State Capital. Convened January 12, 1970, Adjourned Sine Die February 12, 1970.” Snyder, Sid, Ed. State Printing Plant, Olympia, Wash., 1970. 236.

23 Ibid., “Appendix, Senate Roster.” 576-581.

24 “Engrossed Senate Bill No. 68.” “Journal of the House,” Audio recording. Twenty-third Day, February 3, 1970.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid.

28 “Roll Call.” “Journal of the House, 1979 Extraordinary Session.” February 1970. 301.

29 Helen Bonds, Weekly Newsletter. August 7, 1970. Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform Records, 1963-1970. Box 1, Folder 4, “Interoffice Correspondence”.

30 Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform Records, 1963-1970. Box 1, Folder 5, “Executive Committee Meeting Minutes”. March 4, 1970.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid. April 8, 1970.

33 Ibid.

34 Ibid., Page 5.

35 Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform Records, 1963-1970. Box 1, Folder 4, “Interoffice Correspondence.” June 29, 1970.

36 Ibid. Weekly Newsletter to WCAR branches from Helen Bonds. August 7, 1970.

37 Ibid.

38 Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform Records, 1963-1970. Box 1, Folder 5, “Executive Committee Meeting Minutes”. March 4, 1970.

39 Ibid. April 8, 1970. Page 3.

40 Queen Anne News. September 7, 1970. Page unknown.

41 Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform Press Release. Genevieve Lane. June 8, 1970.

42 Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform Records, 1963-1970. Box 1, Folder 5, “Executive Committee Meeting Minutes”. April 8, 1970.

43 Letter to Supporters. Helen Bonds. July 15, 1970. Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform Records, 1963-1970. Box 1, Folder 4, “Interoffice Correspondence”.

44 WCAR Tri-Cities Chapter newsletter. Patricia L. Shanks, Tri-City Coordinator. Date not indicated. Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform Records, 1963-1970. Box 1, Folder 4, “Interoffice Correspondence”.

45 Letter to Supporters. Helen Bonds. August 7, 1970. Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform Records, 1963-1970. Box 1, Folder 4, “Interoffice Correspondence”.

46 Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform Records, 1963-1970. Box 1, Folder 5, “Executive Committee Meeting Minutes”. March 4, 1970.

47 Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform Records, 1963-1970. Box 1, Folder 4, “Interoffice Correspondence”. August 7, 1970.

48 Letter from Dr. Thomas H. Reed M.D. to Helen Bonds. June 29, 1970. Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform Records, 1963-1970. Box 1, Folder 4, “Interoffice Correspondence

49 Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform Records, 1963-1970. Box 1, Folder 5, “Executive Committee Meeting Minutes”. August 12, 1970.

50 “Marilyn Ward recalls the campaign to reform Washington’s abortion law.” Essay 2675.

51 Seattle Times. “The Historic Seattle Times, 1900-1984”October 23, 1970. Page D2.

52 Seattle Times. “The Historic Seattle Times, 1900-1984” October 27, 1970. Page D2.

53 Seattle Times. “The Historic Seattle Times, 1900-1984” October 14, 1970. Page A20.

54 Seattle Times. “The Historic Seattle Times, 1900-1984” October 31, 1970. Page A6.

55 Press Release. August 26, 1970. Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform Records, 1963-1970. Box 1, Folder 8, “News Releases”.

56 Seattle Times. “The Historic Seattle Times, 1900-1984”. November 1, 1970. Page A28.

57 Ibid. November 2, 1970. Page A24.

58 Ibid. January 28, 1970. Page D10.

59 Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform Records, 1963-1970. Box 1, Folder 4, “Interoffice Correspondence”. September 24, 1970.

60 Seattle Times. “The Historic Seattle Times, 1900-1984”. March 21, 1970. Page A10.

61 Ibid. May 7, 1970. Page B1.

62 Ibid. June 30, 1970. Page B6.

63 Ibid. October 6, 1970. Page B1.

64 Referendum 20 Endorsements. Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform Records, 1963-1970. Box 2, Folder 15.

65 Washington Secretary of State. “1970 Referendum General Results – Washington”. 2012.

66 Washington Secretary of State. “Referendum Measure No. 74 Concerns marriage for same-sex couples.” November 27, 2012.

67 Washington Secretary of State. “1970 Referendum General Results – Washington”. 2012.

68 Helen Bonds, “re: election recap” to WCAR staff. November 10, 1970. Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform Records, 1963-1970. Box 1, Folder 4, “Interoffice Correspondence”.

69 “Re: Election Recap.” Bonds, Helen. Letter to Supporters. Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform Records, 1963-1970. Box 1, Folder 4, “Interoffice Correspondence”. November 10, 1970.

70 “Vote on Final Passage, Roll Call.” Senate Journal of the Second Extraordinary Session Forty-First Legislature of the State of Washington at Olympia, the State Capital. Convened January 12, 1970, Adjourned Sine Die February 12, 1970.” Snyder, Sid, Ed. State Printing Plant, Olympia, Wash., 1970. 236.

71 Spokesman Review. Page 4. November 1, 1970. Microfilm A696

72 “Re: Election Recap.” Bonds, Helen. Letter to Supporters. Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform Records, 1963-1970. Box 1, Folder 4, “Interoffice Correspondence”. November 10, 1970.

73 Ibid.

74 Yakima Herald-Republic. November 1, 1970, Page 13A. Microfilm A5705

75 “Political Street Fair Stands High on League’s Activity Schedule.” Yakima Herald-Republic. June 6, 1970.

76 “Statewide Legislative District Map with Legislative Members.” Washington State Legislature, 2012.

77 1970 Legislative District Map. Washington Secretary of State.

78 “Re: Election Recap.” Bonds, Helen. Letter to Supporters. Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform Records, 1963-1970. Box 1, Folder 4, “Interoffice Correspondence”. November 10, 1970.