Idaho's Andrus Vetoes Strict Abortion Bill

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

But with its Webster decision last summer, the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court altered the political landscape. Suddenly, for the first time in almost two decades, state legislatures voting on the issue were playing for keeps.

Until the Missouri decision, anti-abortion groups easily dominated the debate in many state legislatures. Now, with Roe vs. Wade in jeopardy, long-complacent abortion rights supporters have mobilized as well.

Abortion rights advocates here wasted no time Friday in vowing to press their advantage.

"They should never have shaken this cage," said Cynthia Brownsmith, a psychiatrist and spokeswoman for Freedom Means Choice. Referring to legislators who voted for the bill, she said: "We are going to get these jerks out of here."

Sally Snodgrass, 53, a family counselor here, announced her candidacy for a state Senate seat at a boisterous Thursday night rally on the Idaho Capitol steps attended by more than 2,000 people clutching candles and placards. One of the placards read: "Welcome to Idaho--Set Your Watches Back 100 Years."

Snodgrass will campaign to defeat state Republican Sen. Rod Beck, whom she described as, "a man who has no sympathy or concern for families."

Since the bill was passed in the Legislature eight days ago, Andrus has been a man under extraordinary pressure to act one way or the other.

A great deal of the pressure came from out of state, which Andrus pointedly referred to Friday.

His own reservations about the legislation "were shunted aside in the frenzy to pass a bill that, by the sponsors' own admission, was conceived outside of our state for the sole purpose of getting this issue back before the Supreme Court," he said.

"I believe, and I am confident the people of Idaho believe, that we can make our own judgments on this terribly important issue without outside pressure and outside influence or threats," Andrus said.

One Andrus aide, who asked not to be identified, said that "last Sunday, Cecil was in his garden repairing a sprinkler head when a car screeched to a halt and a woman got out and said: 'Governor, while I have you here . . .. ' "

Andrus, splattered with mud, laid down his shovel and listened patiently as the woman "gave him the benefit of her wisdom."

In his office, Andrus has also listened carefully to a continuous stream of legal scholars and religious leaders. One of the scholars was Brigham Young University law professor Richard Wilkins, who opposes the Idaho bill and was instrumental in persuading the Utah Legislature to turn down a similar measure promoted by the National Right to Life Committee.

"I talked to him for 30 minutes on Tuesday," Wilkins said. "I told him my bottom line on this statute is that it has problems. "The definitions of the exceptions are so rigid that they don't reflect medical or social realities."

Staff writer Karen Tumulty and researcher Ann Rovin contributed to this story.

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