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Idaho's Andrus Vetoes Strict Abortion Bill

March 31, 1990|LOUIS SAHAGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOISE, Ida. — Gov. Cecil D. Andrus vetoed the nation's most restrictive state abortion bill Friday, ending the possibility that the legislation would lead to a U.S. Supreme Court review of the 1973 decision giving women the right to the abortion.

The Democratic governor, who has long opposed abortion, said he killed the bill because of concerns that its restrictions were too severe and that it would not withstand constitutional scrutiny.

"The bill is drawn so narrowly that it would punitively and without compassion further harm an Idaho woman who may find herself in the horrible, unthinkable position of confronting a pregnancy that resulted from rape or incest," Andrus said at a news conference.

The bill would have made abortion illegal except in cases of non-statutory rape reported within seven days, incest if the victim is under 18, severe fetal deformity or a threat to the mother's life.

"What do we do in a circumstance in which a 12-year-old girl becomes pregnant as a result of incest?" Andrus asked. "If, for whatever reason, she does not or cannot report the identity of the perpetrator to the authorities, she will violate the law if she or her family cause the pregnancy to be terminated.

"This law would demand that this 12-year-old girl, who has already been the victim of an unspeakable act, compound her tragedy."

Beyond that, Andrus said, "I am advised by legal scholars of both political parties that, in their opinion, there is not the remotest chance of this legislation being found constitutional by the Supreme Court."

The bill would have outlawed more than 90% of the 1,650 abortions currently performed each year in Idaho.

The controversy the bill unleashed thrust this farming and cattle ranching community of 130,000 into an uncomfortable national spotlight. It also made the 58-year-old governor and former secretary of Interior the center of the national abortion debate.

Since the bill was passed eight days ago by the state Legislature, Andrus' office has received more than 20,000 telephone calls, letters and messages, including threats by abortion rights advocates to boycott Idaho's leading cash crop, potatoes.

His decision triggered cheers and celebration in the streets among abortion rights groups who have held nightly candlelight vigils on the Idaho Capitol steps for the past week.

"We are tremendously relieved and very grateful to the governor for subjecting this bill to very close scrutiny," said Sally Trott, a founder of Freedom Means Choice.

"The Idaho veto is a stunning blow to the anti-abortion movement," said Molly Yard, president of the National Organization for Women in Washington.

The veto angered anti-abortion forces.

"The pro-life people of Idaho did not lose today nearly as much as the unborn children of Idaho," Debbie Roper, a spokeswoman for Right to Life of Idaho, said, trying not to cry. "We regret deeply that the governor did not take advantage of an honest chance to review the bill on its merits."

The Boise Republican who wrote the legislation, Sen. Roger B. Madsen, said: "It is a tremendous disappointment, but I'm not discouraged. If the governor is reelected and the majority of the senate is pro-life, of course I will try again."

This year, however, the issue is dead. State legislators conceded that even if Andrus called the Legislature back into session, there would not be enough votes to override the veto.

The legislation was specifically aimed at Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who is considered the court's swing vote on abortion. The other eight justices are thought to be evenly divided on the issue of overturning the 1973 decision, Roe vs. Wade.

Last summer, when the Supreme Court gave states more leeway to impose abortion restrictions in the case of Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services, O'Connor suggested the court's protection of legal abortion could be swept aside under the right circumstances.

By shifting the legal burden to doctors who perform abortions, Madsen and his supporters hoped O'Connor would tip the balance in the court.

Doctors performing abortions deemed illegal would have faced civil fines up to $10,000. They could also have been sued by someone having a legitimate interest in the pregnancy, including the father of a fetus or the parents of a minor child undergoing abortion.

A woman who had an abortion would not have been punished unless she attempted to perform the procedure on herself.

The veto reflects the new reality that surrounds the politics of the abortion issue.

For the first 16 years after the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision made abortion legal throughout the nation, the issue was a relatively simple one for legislators in states such as Idaho, where abortion opponents are well-organized and powerful.

Lawmakers could vote for sharp restrictions, even an outright ban on abortion, fully aware that the courts would strike these laws down. Thus, they could appease anti-abortion forces, without stirring up those who support legal abortion.

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