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A Victory for State Over Church

December 07, 1989

The upset victory of pro-choice Democrat Lucy Killea in Tuesday's special election to fill the vacant state Senate seat in San Diego's heavily Republican 39th District has the national spotlight. As well it should. This is the first time a Democrat has ever won this seat. And the contest was marked by the intervention of the local bishop.

The narrow victory by Killea, a practicing Roman Catholic, attracted so much attention principally because her bishop, Leo T. Maher, punished the then-candidate for her pro-choice views by forbidding her to receive Communion. This took place last month, just three weeks before the election. So much of the post-election analysis inevitably has focused on the extent to which Republican voters crossed party lines to repudiate the bishop's intrusion into electoral politics. That question cannot yet be definitively answered. But whether or not any such widespread crossover occurred, the question's very persistence demonstrates just how distorting such clerical intervention can be. After all, Tuesday's election involved, among other things, a fundamental and vexing question of rights now preoccupying Americans. Such an issue deserves to be decided on its merits. But the Killea race was treated by some as less a California Senate contest and even less a debate about abortion rights than as a kind of a plebiscite on how the Roman Catholic Church chooses to discipline its members. This was unfortunate.

The pro-choice adherents will be quick to note that, Bishop Maher's intervention notwithstanding, Killea's triumph ends the current deadlock on abortion in the 40-member California Senate by creating a 21-19 majority that favors laws that protect a woman's right to choose her own course of conduct in this matter. And the Assembly already has a pro-choice majority. The importance of state legislators' views on the abortion issue has increased in the months since the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Webster vs. Reproductive Services reopened certain aspects of the question on the state level. And, on this issue, California lawmakers could become even more pivotal if passage of the proposed Crime Victims' Justice Reform Act initiative struck from the state Constitution the right to privacy, which now protects California women against any attempt to recriminalize abortion.

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