War Of Words In Abortion Initiative -- I-694 Definition Too Vague, Opponents Say

-------------- Initiative 694 --------------

Ballot title: Shall the termination of a fetus' life during the process of birth be a felony crime except when necessary to prevent the pregnant woman's death?

For more information:

Pro: Committee to Stop Infanticide, 360-863-1077.

Con: No on I-694: 206-728-5919.

In the final weeks of the campaign over Initiative 694, the battle has become one of semantics.

One side's strategy is to talk solely about abortion. On the other side, that word is verboten. Guess which side is which?

The initiative's backers, the Committee to Stop Infanticide, is asking Washington voters to curb late-term abortions, which are rare but legal when a woman's physical or emotional health is at risk.

But campaign strategists will not talk about abortion. When volunteers go out to protest abortion, they are told to leave that word off their signs. Their campaign literature reassures voters that they can vote for the initiative without harming abortion rights.

"Legally and medically, abortion is what occurs in the womb, and the whole reason for this initiative is to differentiate between abortion and infanticide," says I-694 campaign manager Chad Minnick, who ran the gubernatorial campaign of Ellen Craswell.

"But the only way the other side can win is to make this a referendum on abortion," he says.

Opponents of I-694 are using television ads and a mass mailing to convince voters that the initiative is worded in such a vague way that it could be construed to ban abortions other than the controversial, late-term procedure.

"To say this is not about abortion is to say that Monica Lewinsky and the president is not about sex," says Blair Butterworth, the media consultant for the No on I-694 campaign.

The outcome of this initiative race may well turn on how voters interpret the ballot language. And so the battle over semantics continues into the initiative's wording.

Opponents criticize definition

Proponents say it would ban the killing of an infant who is in the process of being born. That process would be defined as the moment "pregnancy has ended . . . the cervix has become dilated, the protective membrane of the amniotic sac has ruptured and any part or member of an infant child has passed from the uterus or womb . . .."

Opponents criticize that definition as so vague that it could describe an abortion at any stage. All abortions require cervical dilation, and an aborted fetus always passes through the birth canal.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 25 years ago in Roe v. Wade that states can regulate abortions after the first trimester, 28 states have passed bans on late-term procedures. But the courts, citing the laws' vagueness, have blocked enforcement in 20 of those states.

Critics of the initiative also decry its lack of an exclusion for women whose poor health necessitates an abortion. And the Supreme Court, in allowing states to create abortion laws, requires that they include a health exception.

But I-694's author, Dr. Robert Bethel, a physician from Poulsbo, in Kitsap County, and other campaign officials said that such a clause was purposely excluded to prevent depressed women or those having "mad-at-(their)-boyfriend-type of emotional health issues" from obtaining an abortion.

Both sides are aiming their rhetoric at the same group: moderate, pro-choice women who favor some restrictions on abortion.

An ad that has appeared in newspapers nationwide featuring the story of Ohio nurse Brenda Pratt Shafer is an example of how anti-abortion forces hope to play on the emotional ambivalence of many pro-choice voters.

In the ad, the registered nurse says she considered herself "very pro-choice," until she assisted in a "partial-birth" abortion that is then described in graphic terms.

The ad, merged into a brochure mailed to Washington voters, does not make the claim that the type of procedure Shafer witnessed occurs here. Abortion-rights supporters say it does not.

According to state records, more than 80 percent of all abortions are performed in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Late-term abortions, or those performed on a fetus, healthy or unhealthy, that could survive outside of the uterus, are already prohibited by Washington law, except in cases where the mother's physical or mental health is in danger. There were only three late-term abortions performed in Washington state in 1996. None, state officials said, used the kind of procedure that I-694 proponents describe in their literature.

The I-694 committee says it cannot prove that the target of their ban happens here. But they are hoping to convince voters that even if it doesn't, a law would make sure it never does.

"This is not a state that has hordes of people marching in the streets to ban abortion," says I-694's Minnick. "But we have tons of women - they make up more of our support than anyone else - who say, `You know what, I'm pro-choice but I just can't go that far.' "

Voters in Washington state have long and consistently been pro-choice. In 1970, three years before the Roe v. Wade decision, Washington became the first state to legalize abortion by a vote of the people. In 1984, voters rejected a proposal to ban state-funded abortions for poor women.

Money is scarce

Both sides have promised a flurry of radio and television ads in the final weeks.

But with the election looming, both sides are far from raising the money they had budgeted for media alone.

The No on I-694 campaign emerged from the Sept. 15 primary with less than $100,000. A recent $300,000 donation from Planned Parenthood of Western Washington brought its campaign up to $642,000 as of Oct. 16.

The campaign unveiled one 30-second spot on television stations in Seattle, Yakima and the Tri-Cities. The ad stresses the medical community's opposition to any type of abortion ban. A second ad, using a woman doctor, begins airing today.

Abortion-rights advocates blame their money woes on a series of factors, from underestimating the anti-abortion forces' ability to get the measure on the ballot to tough competition for contributors from the campaign fighting I-200.

For initiative backers, the challenges are similar. The I-694 committee had raised $117,500 as of Oct. 16. It had budgeted $600,000 for television and radio ads alone. Instead, the campaign has purchased a lone radio spot and this week began mailing anti-abortion literature to 1 million households.

Money that in previous years came from the Washington State Catholic Conference and conservative Protestant congregations has not materialized. These groups were instrumental in helping the proponents gather 216,000 signatures in six weeks to qualify the measure for the ballot.

Sister Sharon Park, a lobbyist for the state Catholic conference, says rumors that the Catholics are about to shift their money and political might into the abortion fight are greatly exaggerated.

"If I haven't heard about it, I don't think its going to happen," she says. Instead, the dozens of Catholic dioceses around the state will continue to include anti-abortion statements in church bulletins and remind parishioners to vote on the issue.

The controversial abortion procedure has garnered plenty of national attention. Congress passed a similar ban twice last year. President Clinton vetoed it both times and the Senate failed twice to override his veto.

An issue in Senate race

Abortion could figure prominently in the U.S. Senate race between Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Linda Smith.

Murray, a Democrat and staunch supporter of abortion rights, has recently opposed the Republican-led efforts to override Clinton's veto of a late-term abortion ban. And with that in mind, conservatives are eyeing her seat as one of three that they hope to win this year to gain the number of votes needed for an override.

Smith, who has won past elections with the help of religious conservatives and anti-abortion voters, vowed in a recent statement to her supporters that she would "never stop fighting to protect the unborn."