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Governor Offers Explanation of His Views on Abortion

Times Sacramento Bureau Chief

Gov. George Deukmejian said Wednesday that he would like to see “a dramatic reduction” in California abortions, with the procedure permitted only in cases of rape, incest or health danger to the mother.

Under no circumstances, the governor told a news conference, does he believe that an abortion should be allowed after the 20th week of pregnancy.

Choosing his words carefully and in a tone of voice that sometimes bordered on emotional, Deukmejian spelled out in detail for the first time his personal feelings about abortion. But he seemed in no mood to lead a crusade, regardless of last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed states to limit abortions.

The Republican governor acknowledged “the political realities” of trying to push an anti-abortion bill through the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

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“Difficult might be understating it,” he observed.

He sidestepped a question about whether he would like to see anti-abortion forces sponsor a ballot initiative.

Interpreting Laws

“I would like to see people recognize that an unborn child is indeed a person,” he responded. “And the courts, in interpreting some of our criminal statutes, have so ruled. And I would like to see a dramatic reduction in the number of abortions so that we do not continue to take the lives of these unborn children as is now the case.”

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There are an estimated 300,000 abortions each year in California, all sides generally agree.

Although Deukmejian clearly was not gearing up for a fight, he nevertheless did step into a political thicket that he has avoided in the past. So-called social issues--such as abortion and school prayer (he favors a moment of silence)--never have been high on the governor’s agenda. Nor has he ever been pressed to take stands on these controversial subjects.

The position Deukmejian outlined Wednesday--one he said he has held for more than 20 years--probably will not please activists of either the anti-abortion or pro-choice sides of the abortion argument. His views were somewhat complex, as are those of most Americans, according to polls.

Court Rulings

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The governor advocated returning to a strict interpretation of the 1967 California Therapeutic Abortion Act, which he voted for as a state senator. The law was later rendered virtually moot by various court rulings, including the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationally.

But when the Legislature passed the 1967 measure and Gov. Ronald Reagan signed it--"my worst decision as governor,” Reagan often said later-- the law permitted abortions in cases of rape, incest or “substantial risk” that a continued pregnancy would “gravely impair” the “physical or mental health” of the mother. The latter provision was interpreted liberally, leading to hundreds of thousands of abortions that Reagan and fellow conservatives, such as Deukmejian, had never anticipated.

“Some of those interpretations almost opened it up to abortion on demand,” Deukmejian lamented Wednesday. “I do not support abortions on demand.”

The 1967 act--authored by Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Los Angeles), who then was a state senator and now is a congressman--also forbade abortions beyond 20 weeks of pregnancy, stipulated that they had to be approved by a committee of doctors and required that they be performed in accredited hospitals. For several years now, California abortions have been performed routinely in walk-in clinics.

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Deukmejian said California’s current law “should be similar” to the 1967 act. But leaving the door open to potential compromise if a bill ever did start making its way through the Legislature, the governor said he would “certainly consider” other proposals.

Asked about also allowing abortions in cases where a fetus might be born severely impaired, Deukmejian paused for several moments, obviously agonizing.

“Well, that’s a very difficult issue--this whole issue is very difficult,” he finally said. “It’s not an easy issue for anybody. . . . I don’t know that I have a position on that.

“I’ve seen a lot of deformed children in our developmentally disabled hospitals and other settings. And I’ve also seen a lot of love that exists between the families and their children.”

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Court Battles

Deukmejian predicted that California’s first big abortion battles will be waged in the courts. For example, two cases could wind up in the state Supreme Court later this year: one challenging the state’s authority to deny Medi-Cal payments for abortions sought by low-income women and another challenging a 1987 state law requiring unmarried teen-agers to obtain parental or court consent for an abortion.

The governor Wednesday also defended cutting $24 million in state funds for family planning programs. Critics say last week’s cut will curtail or eliminate a wide array of services--including examinations to detect cancer--for 235,000 women who have nowhere else to turn for care. But anti-abortion activists charge that the programs have failed to prevent pregnancies and instead have subtly encouraged abortion as a form of birth control.

Deukmejian, under intense pressure from Democrats to restore the funds, said he might provide more money if “there’s some kind of restructuring” of the programs. But, he added, “I don’t have any intention of agreeing to just add more money to the family planning (program) as it exists today.”

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