Abortion Law: Marilyn Ward recalls the campaign to reform it in Washington.

  • Posted 8/26/2000
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Marilyn Ward (1929-2012), a volunteer lobbyist for a wide range of liberal social issues in the 1960s and 1970s, was an early member of the Citizens' Abortion Study Group, later renamed Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform. In this interview, Ward describes her involvement with the group and with the campaign for Referendum 20, which liberalized Washington's abortion law after it was approved by the voters in 1970. This interview of Marilyn Ward was done by Cassandra Tate in Seattle on August 26, 2000.

The Interview

"In the late 1960s, I was a Dan Evans Republican and a citizen lobbyist in Olympia, working on children’s issues and welfare reform, when the Citizens’ Abortion Study Group got in touch with me [Evans, a liberal Republican, served three terms as governor of Washington, 1965-1977]. I was on the board of Planned Parenthood of Seattle-King County. [Planned Parenthood director] Lee Minto had helped put together a study group that included a couple of Jesuit priests, some doctors, a psychologist, the head of the Council of Churches, a lawyer, and a few other Planned Parenthood members. It was a very diverse group, except that most were Democrats; I think they asked me to get involved because they wanted a Republican.

"Dr. Samuel Goldenberg, the psychologist, was chairman. Marilyn Watson from Planned Parenthood’s board; Rev. [Everett J.] Jensen, chairman of the Council of Churches; Dr. Donald McIntyre, an ob/gyn; and Dr. Bill [William E.] Watts, an internist [then president of the Washington State Medical Association]; Palmer Smith, a lawyer; Joel Pritchard, at that time a Washington state senator, and of course Lee Minto were the members of this group. Palmer drafted the bill that went to the Legislature in 1969.

"We met for a couple of years before we got the bill ready. We took each person involved in the termination of a pregnancy and we spent one study period looking at all aspects of that person’s involvement, starting with the mother, the father, the grandparents and siblings and going on down the line to the doctors and nurses, religious groups and society as a whole. It was a very interesting process. At that time there were liberalized abortion laws in England and Japan and California and a few other states. They all imposed certain caveats. Palmer took the laws and laid them out on a long piece of paper so we could see how they were the same and how they differed. The final conclusion was that we wanted a clean bill that would give the woman total rights to make a choice. We believed, in the final analysis, that this was her decision to make.

Liberal Republicans at the Forefront

"My husband and I lived in Olympia at that time so I became the point person for our lobbying efforts. I had a desk in Senator Joel Pritchard’s office; he was the prime sponsor of our bill.

"We had hoped to have it passed by Legislature. Pritchard was a highly respected liberal Republican. Dan Evans as governor was the titular head of the party. The Republican party was much more liberal than the Democrats then in power. We worked very hard to get the bill passed by the legislative leaders.

"During the study period, through Bill Watts and Don McIntyre’s help, we realized we could never get it through the Legislature without help from the Washington State Medical Society. It took about a year, as the approval process involved going through all the appropriate committees in the Medical Society. Finally the Medical Society voted to support the bill. That was a critically important step.

"The Council of Churches also provided its support, as did the American Association of University Women, the League of Women Voters, and of course Planned Parenthood. We decided to keep this as mainstream as possible and avoid the rhetoric we saw in [the abortion reform campaign in] New York, where people were getting pretty hysterical. Sam Goldenberg’s leadership, as the chair for the committee, also was very important, as during that time a well respected man leading this effort was probably going to be more powerful than having a woman chair. We wouldn’t let people like NOW or Radical Women testify in favor of the bill. We said look, we want this to pass; we’re dealing with very conservative middle aged men. We knew if we were going to win, we were going to have work hard to keep this thing calm and cool and professional.

"In those days you could orchestrate your lobbying efforts. We organized the doctors around the state, trying to have every single legislator’s doctor -- preferably their personal physicians, or if not, a doctor from their district -- talk to them about it. It was a major effort.

The Role of Joel Pritchard

"We tried to get it through the Legislature in 1969 but we lost. We just did not have the votes in the Senate. Joel Pritchard realized we did not have the votes and the only way we would have any possibility of success was to go the referendum route. After 1969, we knew pretty much that would be the case, so we came in with a referendum proposal the next year.

"What Joel did -- and this is where his genius was so important -- he convinced a lot of people who were opposed to abortion to vote to get it on the floor. We needed a two-thirds vote to get it out of the Rules Committee. That was the key vote, to get it out of the Rules Committee and onto the floor. It passed by one vote. To me that was the victory. From then on, we knew we had the votes to put a referendum before the people.

"We had wanted a clean bill but one of the sponsors -- I guess it was Joel -- said, You’re going to have to agree to the husband’s signature, to the residency requirement, to the limitations on where and when you could do the procedure. I agreed, and I got raked over the coals by NARAL [National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws] and then by our own side. My response was, Are you going to lose on principle or win on compromise?

"It wasn’t a clean bill -- it wasn’t a perfect bill -- but it still gave women a safe recourse for terminating a pregnancy.

Central Area Women Present

"We had a lot of doctors involved. We used doctors and young interns, judges’ wives, lawyers’ wives, a lot of conservative people. But there was one rally in Olympia when Clara Fraser -- a real rabble rouser -- tried to get these women from the CD [Seattle’s Central District] in to the statehouse. They wanted to chant “Abortion Rights Now!” from the gallery. This was a time when there was one black person in the legislature — Sam Smith. And there were maybe four women legislators. Other than that they were all conservative white males. To have a bunch of black women in the gallery chanting “Abortion Rights Now!” with Clara Fraser leading them -- that bill would have been lost right then. It would have gotten those guys [the legislators] deep planted and they’d never do anything.

"That was a real challenge, when the women from the Central District came down, but I knew a lot of them because I’d been working for years for welfare reform, and they trusted me. I promised them if they would keep quiet in the gallery, if they would promise me not to say anything from the gallery, I would get them recognized from the floor. The doorman let me go in to the speaker’s room, and I convinced him that he had to recognize those women, to acknowledge them. Well, he stopped the proceedings and said there was a group of constituents that needed to be recognized and he thanked them for coming and then that blessed man held up one of our bumper strips that said “Every Child Should Be Wanted” while the women were being acknowledged.

The Opposition

"The major opposition was from the Catholic church. There was a lobbyist for the church whose wife had had seven children. She was suffering from terrible postpartum depression. She came to every committee hearing. I think she felt pregnancy was sort of like university hazing. If she had to go through it, every one else had to, too.

"Their billboards were pretty graphic. They were so determined to show the gruesome details of abortion that they turned people off. Our approach was softer and kinder. We tried to keep the extreme rhetoric out of our campaigning. We were talking about why every child should be a wanted child. We also asked why the state should step in when abortion was such a subjective decision. Our opponents were using all the ugly parts of the termination itself.

"Every Child Should Be Wanted"

"Our lobbying effort was mostly financed by Dr. [Frans] Koome [Renton physician who helped galvanize the abortion reform campaign in 1969 by announcing that he had been performing illegal abortions]. Dr. Koome gave us $10,000. He was a different kind of person but he was very compassionate about women. He worried about women going in the back alleys. He was willing to be open about it and he was willing to be controversial. He was way outside the medical establishment. I’m sure they were glad he was there and they probably referred patients to him, but I’m sure he was ostracized. He gave us the money because he really believed women needed to have safe terminations.

"Our total budget was $15,000, for a statewide campaign. We had bumper stickers and billboards, all using the theme that “Every Child Should Be Wanted.” We organized letter writing campaigns. It was amazing what we could accomplish with just volunteer labor. Most of us were married and were not working so we had time to volunteer: In those days one income could support a family.

Experiences Close to Home

"One of the reasons I’d gotten interested in abortion reform was that I had two friends, when I was on the board of Planned Parenthood, who asked me if I could help them get abortions. This would have been in the early 1960s. I didn’t know about Dr. Koome then. But there was this woman on Mercer Island who did abortions in her home. She was kind of protected by the doctors because she was clean. I knew of another provider, I believe he was a doctor, who had an office downtown. You could call a doctor and get a name, if the doctor was sympathetic.

"One of my friends had had three children in three years and here she was pregnant again. She could not deal with the three she had. Her husband wasn’t the kind to help much around the house. For her, being able to get an abortion made all the difference in the world. She went to the woman on Mercer Island. Eventually she ended up having a fourth child, a wanted child. The other friend was unmarried. There was no way she could have taken care of a child at that time. She ended up going to the doctor downtown. And eventually she got married and had four children. It was my personal involvement with these women in helping them to find a safe place to terminate their unwanted pregnancies that propelled me into this arena of legalizing abortions. Their experiences were degrading, humiliating, and dangerous.

"The day abortions became legal in Washington state, ironically, I was in the hospital having a D & C [dilation and curettage, involving scraping of the uterine wall] for a partial spontaneous abortion. I would have maintained the pregnancy if I could have. The woman in the bed next to me was the first one to have a legal abortion in that hospital and she was not treated well at all. The nurses were really nasty to her. Their attitude was, it may be legal, but abortion is still shameful.

"It was exhilarating to have this referendum passed by the legislature to the people, and then by the people, by a comfortable margin. I was very glad to have been a part of this effort."

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