Abortion Reform in Washington State

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 2/26/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5313

On November 3, 1970, Washington voters approved Referendum 20, which legalized abortion in the early months of pregnancy. Fifteen other states had liberalized their abortion laws by that time, but Washington was the first -- and so far the only -- state to do so through a vote of the people. It was a triumphant moment in a campaign that had its genesis in 1967, in the office of Seattle psychologist Samuel Goldenberg (1921-2011), who had been asked to help two patients, one middle-aged and the other a young college student, both desperate for a way to end an unwanted pregnancy.

Limited Options

The options available to women seeking abortions in Washington in the late 1960s were limited. Well-connected women could obtain legal, “therapeutic” abortions by convincing a hospital committee of physicians that the procedure was medically necessary. Wealthy women could travel to a foreign country where abortion was legal. One Seattle travel agency specialized in arranging trips to Japan, where, for $1,000, a woman could obtain a safe, legal abortion, in a four-day stay that included one day for sightseeing. Less fortunate women could try to access an underground network of people willing to perform illegal abortions. The lucky might be referred to a skilled physician, such as Dr. A. Frans Koome of Renton, who thought the existing law was unfair and was willing to defy it. The unlucky might end up like Raisa Trytiak, a 24-year-old Seattle woman who was strangled and left in a garbage dump after a botched abortion on February 7, 1967.

Not long after Trytiak’s death, two unwillingly pregnant patients made appointments with psychologist Samuel Goldenberg. The first was a married woman, in her early 40s, who was already having difficulty taking care of her two existing children. Her husband was remote and unsupportive. To Goldenberg, termination of her pregnancy “made sense” for both her and her children. A hospital committee rejected her plea. The second patient was a college student. Goldenberg remembers her as someone who had had little sexual experience but became pregnant anyway. She was getting condemnation but no help from her family. Goldenberg referred her to an obstetrician/gynecologist for evaluation and he referred her to a hospital committee and she, too, was rejected. It was at this point that Goldenberg, deeply troubled, began talking to colleagues about the possibilities of changing the law (Goldenberg Interview).

The need for reform was already being explored in some circles, influenced in part by the nascent women’s movement and its concerns about women’s rights to control their own bodies. Lawyers, religious leaders, and others with an interest in social justice also were beginning to question the fairness of the existing laws. At the same time, some physicians were challenging the laws on the grounds that they interfered with the doctor-patient relationship. The doctors wanted to practice medicine as they saw fit, free from the restraints of laws and hospital committees.

Ironically, an earlier generation of physicians had led the movement to criminalize abortion in the first place. Until the late nineteenth century, no state restricted the termination of pregnancy before “quickening,” the point at which a pregnant woman can feel the movements of the fetus (approximately the fourth month of pregnancy). The legal attitudes toward pregnancy and abortion were based on an understanding of human development as a process rather than an absolute moment. What would be defined today as an early induced abortion was not even called abortion then; it was said instead that a pregnancy had “slipped away,” or that the woman’s menses had been “restored” (Reagan, 8).

The Washington Territorial Legislature adopted its first abortion-related statute in 1854. The law made it illegal to “administer to any woman pregnant with a quick child any medicine, drug, or substance whatever; or use or employ any instrument or other means with intent to destroy such child, unless the same shall have been necessary to preserve the life of such mother” (Sec. 37, p. 81, Laws of Washington, 1854). The law was revised slightly in 1869, 1873, and 1881, but the stipulation about quickening was not removed until 1909. In that year, a new law made it a crime for anyone, including the prospective mother, to terminate any pregnancy unless necessary to save the life of the mother (Chap. 249, Session Laws, 1909).

Doctors v. Midwives

According to several recent histories, the American Medical Association was the primary force behind the anti-abortion laws of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As writers James Risen and Judy L. Thomas point out, doctors had a natural stake in efforts to restrict abortion. Highlighting the abuses and dangers of abortion helped encourage the professionalization of medical practice, while limiting competition from midwives and other “irregular” healers who provided abortion services. Historian Leslie J. Reagan argues that doctors gained moral authority — and a further competitive edge — by positioning themselves as paternalistic arbiters of female reproductive behavior.

The doctors’ campaign was reinforced by the growing fears of “race suicide” among Americans of Anglo-Saxon heritage. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, many of them Catholic, were flooding into the United States at the same time that birth rates were declining among white Protestants. Abortion came to be seen as part of a demographic calamity facing the white upper classes. As Reagan puts it, “White male patriotism demanded that maternity be enforced among white Protestant women” (Reagan, 11). Lawmakers responded by imposing ever-tighter restrictions on abortion, largely eliminating the earlier distinctions between operations performed before and after quickening.

As in other states, the early anti-abortion movement in Washington was played out against fears that the white Protestant elite would soon be outnumbered. This can be seen in a series of columns written in 1902 by the editor of the Seattle Mail and Herald about a case of infanticide in Ballard. In what the editor called a “desperate” effort to hide the evidence of a “criminal relationship,” a young father had murdered his three-week-old daughter. The editor condemned the crime but was more alarmed by what he called “the curse of America today”: the number of people who “have wantonly squelched the life out of their own offspring in embryo, for the sake of a moment of passing pleasure.” He claimed that “The embryonic children of our ‘most refined’ families are being strangled by their parents by the tens of thousands.” It was in this climate that the 1909 legislature banned virtually all abortions in the state.

Illegal But Common

The fact that abortions were illegal does not mean they were not performed, by licensed physicians as well as by illegal abortionists. Surveys of middle-class women in several states in the late 1920s showed that 10 to 20 percent had had abortions. A study of 10,000 working-class clients of Margaret Sanger’s birth control clinics during the same period found that 20 percent of all pregnancies had been intentionally aborted. Historians agree that throughout the 1920s and 1930s abortions were relatively easy to obtain despite the laws.

After World War II, however, new steps were taken to repress the practice. Hospitals formed therapeutic abortion committees, which limited the number of abortions performed under legal protection. The number of police raids on so-called “abortion mills” increased, and the targets were broadened to include competent abortionists as well as those who killed their patients.

Race, Class, and Reproduction

The new system was sharply divided along lines of race and class. Nearly all of the women who received safe, legal abortions in hospitals were white women with private health insurance. Desperate women resorted to so-called “kitchen table” or “back alley” abortions, although Reagan cautions that “The proverbial ‘back-alley butcher’ story of abortion overemphasizes the fatalities and limits our understanding of the history of illegal abortion” (Reagan, 133). Still, reports about women who died or suffered debilitating injuries as a result of bungled abortions contributed to the campaign to liberalize the laws. In Seattle, for example, support for reform began to coalesce after the death of Raisa Trytiak was reported in the local press.

Women as well as doctors played a prominent role in the movement to decriminalize abortion in Washington in the late 1960s. However, the impetus and initial direction came from medical providers, seeking simply to enlarge the legal space in which physicians could perform abortions. Eventually, feminists recast the debate to emphasize women’s rights to control their own bodies; but in the early years, the focus was on the rights of doctors to practice medicine without interference. “I guess it would be fair to say we were less concerned about women’s rights than women’s health,” said Lee Minto, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Seattle-King County from 1967 until 1993 (Minto Interview).

The Study Group

Minto was among the first of a group of people to join what became the Citizens’ Abortion Study Group, which grew out of Goldenberg’s discussions with his colleagues about “the problem of abortion.” The group met regularly for more than a year, exploring the moral, ethical, and political issues involved in a woman’s decision to have an abortion.

Among the early members were:

  • Dr. Donald McIntyre, a Seattle obstetrician and gynecologist;
  • Dr. Ronald J. Pion, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington;
  • Seattle attorney Palmer Smith;
  • Dr. Glenn T. Strand, a psychiatrist who shared office space with Goldenberg;
  • the Rev. Everett J. Jensen, general secretary of the State Council of Churches;
  • Marilyn Ward of Seattle, a liberal Republican and volunteer lobbyist for welfare reform and children’s issues;
  • Republican State Senator Joel Pritchard of Seattle.

From Study to Action

“We brought in people from various disciplines,” Goldenberg said, “doctors, lawyers, professors, researchers, parents, police — whoever seemed to have an interest. 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.” By the summer of 1968, the group had drafted a proposed amendment to the law and was seeking endorsements from key organizations, beginning with the Washington State Medical Association. Shortly thereafter, the group changed its name, to Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform (WCAR). The members had decided “we no longer wanted to be a study group but an action group,” Goldenberg said. “We had reached a consensus that the law needed to be changed.”

Legislation drafted by Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform was introduced in both the House and Senate during the 1969 legislative session, sponsored by William Chatalas, a Seattle Democrat, in the House and by Pritchard in the Senate. The proposed reforms were endorsed by dozens of organizations, from the Washington State Medical Association to the Washington Citizens’ Committee on Crime to the Council of Planning Affiliates, which represented 180 public and private groups concerned with health and welfare. It also had the support of Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925), a liberal Republican.

Legislators of Varying Intelligence

Nevertheless, House Bill 312 died in the Health and Welfare Committee and Senate Bill 282 remained bottled up in the Senate Rules Committee, which refused to schedule a vote on it. During a stormy hearing, dominated by a delegation of women from Seattle’s Central Area, members of the Rules Committee were heckled as they tried to justify their inaction. Senator William S. Day, a Democrat from Spokane, said he was against the bill because he felt that women didn’t have the right to make such a decision. “Women are of varying intelligence,” he said. “So are legislators,” a woman shouted (The Seattle Times). The committee was unmoved.

Supporters of reform returned the next year, during a special session of the Legislature, with a similar bill, introduced in the Senate by Pritchard. At the insistence of members of the Judiciary Committee, the bill was amended to stipulate that women seeking abortions be residents of the state for at least 90 days and have the consent of their husbands, if they were married and living with their husbands, or the consent of their legal guardians, if they were under 18. The original bill had used the traditional but imprecise concept of “quickening” to define legal abortions. As amended, it permitted abortions “within the four lunar months after conception upon a woman not quick with child.” The measure was approved by the Legislature and presented to the voters for ratification as Referendum 20 (Journal of the Senate; Engrossed Senate Bill No. 68).

“We wanted a clean bill that would give the woman total rights to make a choice,” said Marilyn Ward, chief lobbyist for Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform, “…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 of where and when you could do the procedure. I agreed, and I got raked over the coals…. I said, are you going to lose on principle or win on compromise?” (Ward Interview).

In its 1970 voters’ pamphlet, the League of Women Voters listed 22 statewide organizations that had formally endorsed Referendum 20, from the Washington Environmental Council to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Only two groups were listed in opposition: the Voice for the Unborn and Catholics United for the Faith. On November 3, 1970, the voters approved the measure by a majority of 56.5 percent. The law went into effect one month later.

Roe v. Wade

Most of the new law’s restrictions on abortion were overturned in the courts during the next few years, beginning in 1973 with the United States Supreme Court’s historic ruling in the case of Roe v. Wade. In a 1975 case involving Dr. A. Frans Koome, a Renton abortion provider, the Washington State Supreme Court set aside the law’s provision for parental consent. Several subsequent rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that neither her parents (if she was a minor) nor her husband (if she was married) could deny a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.

Initiative 120

Abortion, it’s been said, “is as ancient as sex, reproduction, and the triumph of hope over experience” (Risen and Thomas, 6). It has also become almost a perennial issue in the Legislature, with activists — now identified by the labels “pro-choice” or “pro-life” — regularly facing off in increasingly polarized debate.

Washington voters have expressed their sentiments on the issue several times since 1970, most recently by approving Initiative 120 in 1991. In contrast to Referendum 20, which simply amended an existing law, Initiative 120 repealed the law and replaced it with one that declares that “every individual possesses a fundamental right of privacy with respect to personal reproductive decisions” (Revised Code of Washington, chap. 9.02, Initiative Measure No. 120, 1991). Perhaps in a reflection of the deepening divisions about the issue of abortion, the initiative passed with a much slimmer margin of approval than did Referendum 20, squeaking by with an edge of only 4,222 votes out of 1,509,402 cast.

Sam Goldenberg does not know what happened to the two patients who came to his office in 1967, seeking help that he was not able to give them. But he looks back, with some pride, at his role in the effort that has expanded the choices available to women since then. “It was an exhilarating experience to be part of that,” he said. “It was a wonderful exercise in citizenship.”


General Laws of Washington Territory, 1854, 1869, 1873, 1881; Session Laws of the State of Washington, 1909; House Bill 312 and Senate Bill 282, 1969; Senate Bill 68, 1970; Journal of the Senate, January 30, 1970, 233-34; Journal of the House, February 4, 1970; Referendum Bill Number 20, “Changes in Abortion Law,” 1970; Revised Code of Washington, chap. 9.02, Initiative Measure No. 120, “Reproductive Privacy Act,” 1991; Cynthia Gorney, A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998); Leslie J. Reagan, When Abortion was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); James Risen and Judy L. Thomas, Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War (New York: BasicBooks, 1998); Ellen Messer and Kathryn E. May, Back Rooms: Voices from the Illegal Abortion Era (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988); Seattle Mail and Herald, June 7, September 27, October 4, 1902; The Seattle Times, March 13, 1969; Seattle Post-Intelligencer; Cassandra Tate Interview with Samuel Goldenberg, Seattle, September 2, 2000; Cassandra Tate Interview with Lee Minto, Seattle, August 31, 2000; Cassandra Tate Interview with Marilyn Ward, Seattle, August 26, 2000.

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