Dr. Samuel Goldenberg recalls the campaign to liberalize Washington's abortion laws

  • Posted 9/02/2000
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2656

Dr. Samuel Goldenberg (1921-2011), a Seattle psychologist, organized the Citizens' Abortion Study Group after being unable to help two of his patients obtain legal abortions in 1967. The group, later renamed Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform, was the prime sponsor of Referendum 20, which liberalized the state's abortion law after it was approved by the voters in 1970. Fifteen other states had legalized abortion by then, but Washington was the first -- and so far the only -- state to do so by popular vote. In this interview, conducted for Historylink by Cassandra Tate on September 2, 2000, Goldenberg discusses the origins of the campaign that led to abortion reform in Washington.

The Interview

"The problem of abortion was one that was being aired with increasing frequency in those days [the late 1960s]. In my practice as a clinical psychologist I came into contact with people -- men and women -- who were involved because the women or the women the men knew were pregnant and didn't want to be pregnant and felt it was going to be a disastrous state of affairs if they had no alternative but to carry through with the pregnancy.

"I began to hear more and more about this. And then I had two cases in my office, back to back, that brought it even closer to my attention. One involved a woman in her early 40s; she already had a couple of kids and was having great difficulty taking care of them and keeping herself together psychologically. When she began to seek termination of her pregnancy, that made sense to me. She received short shrift at the hands of the hospital committee responsible for evaluating abortion applications and it appeared her only legal alternative was to go ahead with the pregnancy.

"Then a young college girl came to my office shortly after that. She was having a lot of emotional difficulty. Included in her unfortunate situation was an unwanted pregnancy. This was a girl who had had little sexual experience, as I recall, but became pregnant. She also was in a family situation where she was unable to get much support. There was a lot of condemnation but no help. I talked with some members of the family with her present and l felt I got a fairly straightforward picture of the family constellation and the lack of help she was going to get there. I referred her to an obstetrician/gynecologist for evaluation and he referred her to a hospital committee and she was rejected.

"Partly on the basis of these two experiences I began to be more concerned with this issue. I talked with some friends of mine, colleagues. I was sharing office space with a psychiatrist named Glenn Strand and I told him I thought we needed to do something to get organized and bring in some new ideas.

Beginnings of Reform

"I asked Glenn if he knew any obstetricians and gynecologists and others who had had experience with these matters. He referred me to Don McIntyre, an obstetrician and gynecologist who was working with Planned Parenthood at that time. I talked to Don and his wife, to see if they were interested in getting together with a group of people to talk about this issue. We asked who else we needed to be involved and that led very quickly to Palmer Smith. He was an attorney who had drafted a number of social welfare bills for the legislature.

"Palmer joined us, as did Lee Minto of Planned Parenthood. We decided we'd like to have a representative of Catholicism involved, and we ended up with two priests. We continued to fill out the group by inviting representatives of other groups having a particular interest in the subject -- child development researchers, family welfare specialists, clergy, others -- to discuss if there was a need for reform and what kind of reform might be needed.

"We began to meet, initially once a month and then more frequently. We met for maybe a year and discussed this issue. We brought in people from various disciplines -- lawyers, professors, researchers, parents, police -- whoever seemed to have an interest. With the guidance of Palmer Smith, we made a rather thorough study of whose interests are involved in the decision to have an abortion or not -- the interests of the woman, of the husband, of the child, of society, among others.

"My recollection is that we didn't have a direct connection with women's rights groups, but there was an indirect connection. The impact of the women's rights movement was to widen the context in which abortion reform was contemplated. It helped people to be aware of other attitudes and values and predispositions they might hold which bore on their response in questions of choice regarding pregnancy.

Not a Simple Question

"As we became aware of the various levels of interaction, the breadth of the significance of the decision about abortion became more and more apparent. It was not a simple question; it had so many aspects to it. It was not a matter only of women's rights or freedom to choose.

"We began our campaign by having these kinds of thoughts and sharing them. After a year we decided we no longer wanted to be a study group but an action group. We had reached a consensus that the law needed to be changed.

"Joel Pritchard [then a state senator] had joined our group early on and he became the chief legislative sponsor for this legislation, which eventually was turned into the referendum. During the regular session of the legislature in 1969, Joel introduced a bill in the Senate; it was bottled up in the rules committee of the Senate, I think chiefly because of pressure from the Catholic Church. That bill didn't ever get out of the rules committee.

"Then in 1970, there was a special session of the legislature which was supposed to deal only with financial matters. The understanding was that only financial matters would be considered, but if some other legislation was introduced, in violation of this gentlemen's agreement, then the door was open for other bills. It so happened that other legislation did get introduced, so Joel brought in an abortion bill. The legislature was unwilling to deal with the bill in a straightforward way, so they turned it into a referendum. My recollection is that the idea of a referendum first came from within the legislature, but I don't have any documents to support that. We decided to go along with the referendum idea, after considering blocking it.

"By the time the referendum went to the voters, we already had a very broad base of support. Because of the diversity of the study group, we had connections to many different groups in the community. That's what was so impressive to me, how these citizens came together, from just about every religious group and every political group we could think of. There were even some Catholics and one or two Catholic priests who quietly supported us, although not openly from the rooftops. While King County gave us much support, there was a gradual organization of pro-choice groups around the state.

A Wonderful Exercise in Citizenship

"Whatever fund of knowledge and values we could come into contact with, we tried to enlist them in the group, if not as a regular member at least as a resource person. There were times when there were sharp disagreements but I don't think there was a time when the group failed to support open discussion. It was a wonderful exercise in citizenship.

"A number of Republicans were involved. Those were the days of Joel Pritchard, Dan Evans [then governor], that liberal Republican group that Slade Gorton [then attorney general, now U.S. senator] has since fallen out of. The presence of liberal Republicans was very important. I think we miss them now.

Dr. Frans Koome

"What kind of impact did Dr. Koome have? [A. Frans Koome, a Renton physician, caused an uproar in late 1969 by writing a letter to Evans, and releasing copies to the press, in which he confessed that he had been performing illegal abortions for three years.] Frans was a remarkable man. I don't remember enough about him; I'd like to remember a lot more. I recall that initially I was taken aback by Frans and thought, my gosh, this guy is really off the wall. But I didn't think in those terms very long. His commitment to helping people and his commitment to social justice and to helping individuals make decisions in the light of their own circumstances -- his commitment to those issues was tremendous. He was very good about sharing his time and energy and information.

"I think Frans' courage and forthrightness and daring was inspiring in lots of ways, yet it also was a bit unsettling to people who liked to proceed in a cool, analytical, let's-think-this-through manner. But I think Frans, as far as I can recall, remained in touch with rational and intelligent concerns. He was not just an activist who set out to impose his own set of principles on the world. I think he wanted to both understand the problem and act on it; he did not just want people to talk it away. He was a very hard worker and a very courageous man.

"I don't know what happened to my two patients. I don't remember the details of how my work with those two people ended. I think the older woman had some unexpected support that was helpful to her. I think she bore the child; what happened to that child and what happened to her oldest child, who was having behavioral problems, I just don't know.

A Wonderful Group

"It was a wonderful group, the study group and the action group, with great people. They had a generosity of heart and effort. They were really concerned with social good and the good of individuals. I was so fortunate to have made the suggestion that led to the formation of the group, and I served as chairman all the way through. It was an exhilarating experience to be part of that."


Interview with Dr. Samuel Goldenberg by Cassandra Tate, September 2, 2000, Seattle, Washington.

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