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Abortion Measure Confronted Hurdles

Backers and supporters cite several factors that influenced voters as an effort to require parental notification falls short of passage.

November 10, 2005|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

The fear that some girls could be at risk if their parents were told they planned to have an abortion combined with a "just say no" mood among voters to sink the parental notification measure on Tuesday's ballot, strategists who worked on the campaign said Wednesday.

Partisans on either side of the abortion debate cited two other reasons, as well, for the defeat of the initiative, Proposition 73.

Some backers of the initiative said their opponents succeeded in part by yoking the initiative in voters' minds to the unpopular Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Opponents of the initiative cited the growing unease among abortion-rights advocates about the threat to legal abortion nationally. That anxiety, especially with President Bush's recent nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court, helped motivate voters on the abortion-rights side, they said.

"I think we definitely got an environmental bounce from some of these other factors that had nothing to do with our campaign," said Kathy Kneer, president of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California. "But the bottom line is, voters decided to put teen safety first and express their respect for the constitutional rights of all California women."

Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist, said he believed the larger battle over Schwarzenegger's agenda affected the vote on abortion. "Parental notification is an issue that splits the pro-choice vote right down the middle, so if 73 had been on the ballot by itself, it might have passed," Schnur said. "Instead, it got caught in a special election that became a highly charged, highly partisan brawl."

Unofficial election results showed the measure losing 52.6% to 47.4%. It was defeated most decisively in coastal counties, with the exception of Orange, Ventura and San Diego. Its biggest margins of support came in rural California.

While disappointed, supporters of Proposition 73 vowed to regroup.

"First we'll do some debriefing and figure out what lessons we've learned," said Rob Pennington of Right to Life of Central California, a Fresno-based group that promoted the measure among evangelical Christians. "But this is about protecting our girls from sexual predators and abortion providers. Nobody is giving up."

Others in the coalition of religious and conservative groups that pushed the measure said they would use their combined energy to take on other issues. Some want to target Medi-Cal payments for abortions, while others are working to restrict sex education in schools or place a constitutional ban on gay marriage on the state ballot.

In defeating the measure, Californians dealt a setback to a national movement that has put similar laws on the books in 34 other states. The failure of Proposition 73 also cemented California's reputation as a state suspicious of efforts to restrict a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy.

Proposition 73 capped a two-decade push for a parental involvement law. In 1987, the Legislature passed a law to require not just notification, but parental consent, before a minor has an abortion. That law was blocked by the state Supreme Court after a long legal fight.

Last year, San Diego newspaper publisher James Holman -- an ardent antiabortion activist -- put up the cash to qualify Proposition 73 for the ballot. Other major donors were vintner Don Sebastiani and Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan of Michigan.

From the beginning, the fight over the measure turned on a small band of undecided voters. Polls showed that there were solid blocs of about 40% of likely voters on each end of the spectrum who were not likely to change their view given the emotional intensity of the issue.

"Usually with initiatives, you have a much larger number of undecided voters," said Steve Smith, manager of the no-on-73 effort. "So we were operating in a condensed universe where it didn't take much to push it one way or the other."

Opponents of the measure attacked it by raising doubts about its potential impact, especially on girls from families in which disclosure of a pregnancy could be dangerous.

The initiative would have allowed a judge to grant exemptions for medical emergencies and to girls deemed mature enough to make the decision alone, but foes warned that teens would be intimidated by that process and might use other means to end their pregnancies.

Proponents, meanwhile, found themselves struggling to reach voters. Despite his early investment, Holman did not contribute as heavily as other coalition members had hoped, and the campaign was unable to air TV advertisements, considered almost essential for initiatives in California. Instead, supporters spread their message by reaching out to evangelical Christians and Catholics, as well as through automated phone calls, rallies and other grass-roots efforts.

Backers of the measure insisted it was merely a question of parental rights, not a stealth campaign to limit access to abortion. But some supporters emphasized the need to protect girls from "the trauma of abortion," and one ad, in Holman's alternative Catholic newspaper, San Francisco Faith, said, "This is our first opportunity since Roe vs. Wade to pass a baby-saving law in California."

Opponents used such material to warn that the measure was not as straightforward as it sounded -- and that supporters had a broader agenda.

They also pointed to language that would have defined abortion as the death "of a child conceived but not yet born."

Maggie Crosby, an ACLU attorney who specializes in reproductive rights, said that language, which would have been ensconced in the state constitution, was "part of a national campaign to create new legal rights of fetal personhood."

Backers of Proposition 73 denied any back-door assault on wider abortion rights.

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