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Abortion Proposition Finds Its Forum in the Churches

Times Staff Writer

For months, the public debate over Proposition 73 was almost eerily quiet.

Short on funds, neither side could afford to make much public noise about the measure, which would require doctors to notify parents of minors seeking abortions and define the procedure as causing the death of “a child conceived but not yet born.”

But as the weeks before election day dwindled, millions of voters began hearing about the initiative in a place not routinely associated with California politics -- their neighborhood church.

So it went on Sunday, when the faithful up and down the state received a dose of propaganda with their prayer books.

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At some Catholic parishes around Los Angeles, it came in a glossy “yes on 73" flier slipped into the church bulletin. At Methodist and Lutheran churches in the Bay Area, it was dished up by organizers who set up information tables behind the pews and urged a “no” vote.

And at some evangelical Christian churches, including the Rock in Roseville, a suburb of Sacramento, pastors made time for a two-minute DVD featuring teenage actresses promoting support for the measure.

“The essence of Prop. 73 is to protect young girls from abortion and allow parents to be part of that equation,” said Senior Pastor Francis Anfuso at the Rock, where the video rolled on twin screens shown to about 900 weekend churchgoers. “There’s a wonderful simplicity to it, and it’s definitely a message we wanted to spread here.”

Amid the din of television ads targeting other measures facing voters Tuesday, it was easy to miss the mostly grass-roots debate over Proposition 73. The measure contains the most emotional issue on the ballot, but the campaign has been hashed out largely below the radar with few mailers, a smattering of radio ads, some automated phone calls and only a single major-market TV ad.

One unique feature, however, was the campaign inside halls of worship, places usually reserved for reflection and prayer.

“This initiative is really a gut issue,” said Barbara O’Connor, a professor of politics and media at Cal State Sacramento. “And in an election where people are being inundated by a drumbeat of ads, this type of more personal, one-on-one contact right in their own church

The payoff won’t be clear until Tuesday.

“You can do all this [church organizing], but no fringe effort -- and I include evangelical Christians -- will alter the turnout more than 2% or 3%,” said Steve Smith, a veteran strategist and manager of the “No on 73" campaign. “But if the turnout is down around 30 or 35%, the impact of those kinds of movements can be significant.”

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Secretary of State Bruce McPherson predicts 42% of registered voters will go to the polls.

Proposition 73 would amend the state Constitution to require doctors to notify a parent or guardian at least 48 hours before performing an abortion on a girl younger than 18. Exceptions for medical emergencies could be granted, and a girl could avoid the rule if a judge found she was sufficiently mature to make the decision, or that the abortion was in her best interest.

Doctors would have to report every abortion they performed and could be sued for damages if they failed to notify a parent.

And the definition of abortion that Proposition 73 would insert into the state Constitution would be new. The state’s Health and Safety Code already defines abortion as “any medical treatment intended to induce the termination of a pregnancy except for the purpose of producing a live birth.”

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The initiative, which had a narrow lead in a recent Times poll, is considered a crucial draw for voters by the state Republican Party. GOP leaders are betting that supporters of parental notification, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger endorses, would also vote yes on the other ballot proposals he backs -- none of which is winning, many polls show.

Republican officials’ strategy includes bringing in a national consultant to help court religious conservatives: Gary Marx, former director of the Virginia Christian Coalition and a key player in wooing evangelicals during President Bush’s reelection campaign.

In an interview, Marx said his organizers have focused on “mega-churches” in heavily Republican areas of inland California but also have been welcomed in urban African American and Latino churches. He said Crenshaw Christian Center had accepted 20,000 inserts to distribute with church bulletins.

“The message of Proposition 73 is common sense, pro-parent and easy to communicate,” said Marx, who hopes to reach 5 million voters. “We’ve been extremely encouraged by the response that people of faith have shown.”

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Opponents of Proposition 73 have been busy in church as well. California Church Impact, which represents 4,000 congregations of about 1.5 million Protestants, is telling its faithful that the measure will not encourage healthy family communication and threatens the state’s most vulnerable teens.

“The public perception is that religious people all feel one way on certain social issues, that there’s this monolithic view,” said the Rev. Rick Schlosser, a United Methodist minister and executive director of California Church Impact. “That’s not the case at all.”

On Sunday, Schlosser said his goal was to have organizers at 300 churches, mobilizing congregants to turn out and defeat the measure.

Some religious leaders opted to let the faithful think for themselves. At Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Aliso Viejo, Father Fred Bailey simply urged everyone to use their “God-given brains” to figure out how to vote.

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Although it has peaked in the last few weeks, the church-based efforts began before the measure even qualified for the ballot.

San Diego publisher James Holman, an anti-abortion activist and the measure’s top financial backer, printed petitions in a string of alternative Catholic newspapers he owns, soliciting petition signatures. Other activists went to work as well, coordinating “Citizen Sunday” registration drives at churches; asking Bible study groups to devote time to the issue; and printing inserts for church bulletins.

The California Catholic Conference distributed homilies for priests to read at the state’s 1,100 parishes, which serve 11 million people, and provided bulletin inserts and other materials on its website.

Among the more unique tools used by supporters was the DVD shown at the Rock and other churches. It was created by Right to Life of Central California, an anti-abortion group in Fresno that is one of dozens working independently for the measure.

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The group’s executive director, Rob Pennington, said he sent the DVD to 2,000 ministers around the state. Dubbed “Protect Me,” the tape is a dramatization featuring girls speaking about getting pregnant and undergoing abortions they later regretted.

At the Rock, it received an enthusiastic ovation from congregants.

“As far as I know, an initiative has never been promoted on the big screen in California churches before,” Pennington said. “This is groundbreaking.”

In the closing weeks of the campaign, the “no” side began airing a television ad in major markets and stepping up phone banks using doctors, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and others citing what opponents say are the dangers of Proposition 73.

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Supporters, meanwhile, generated a spate of automated calls. One dramatized the 2004 experience of a mother who became outraged when her daughter had a secret abortion and was taken to a hospital, without her parents’ permission, by a school official after experiencing heavy bleeding.

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Times staff writer Roy Rivenburg contributed to this report.


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