The battle over abortion will be fought in at least five states this November, as "pro-life" activists push for referendums to prohibit or eliminate public funding of abortion or to establish the legal rights of the fetus.
Voters are expected to decide whether to continue public financing of abortion in Oregon, Massachusetts and Washington, three of 13 states that currently provide aid to poor women.
The latest struggle between pro-life and "pro-choice" forces took place Thursday in Rhode Island, where 100 delegates to the state's constitutional convention voted narrowly to put an antiabortion amendment on the November election ballot.
The Rhode Island referendum and one slated for the ballot in Arkansas have alarmed pro-choice activists because approval could lead states to outlaw abortions if the Supreme Court reverses its stance on the issue. The referendums put strong pro-life language into state constitutions.
"The people in favor of this want to send the Supreme Court a message," said Kevin McKenna, a supporter of the proposed amendment and president of the Rhode Island Constitutional Convention.
The most sweeping parts of the Rhode Island and Arkansas referendums -- which authorize the legislatures to protect the safety of the fetus from the moment of conception -- would have no impact today. Decreeing the protection of a fetus from conception is unconstitutional under the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which established a woman's right to an abortion.
To avoid the possibility that the referendums could be struck down as unconstitutional, the language says that state laws will apply only to the extent allowed by the high court. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, the amendments could impel state legislatures to pass strong antiabortion laws.
Pro-choice advocates fear the referendums eventually could trigger statewide abortion bans and a spate of legislation that discriminates against pregnant women. "I think it's irresponsible because it's not only antiabortion legislation. It has much broader implications," said Kathie Florsheim, a representative of the Coalition to Preserve Choice in Rhode Island.
Lynette Labinger, a Providence civil rights attorney, predicted some possible scenarios if the referendums were approved and the Supreme Court changed its view of abortion: In order to protect the fetus, the state might pass laws to prevent pregnant women from smoking and consuming alcohol. Legislators could outlaw contraceptives, such as some birth-control pills and intrauterine devices, that prevent fertilized eggs from developing, or mandate pregnancy tests of any women suspected of being pregnant and posing harm to a fetus.
But University of Texas law Prof. Joseph P. Witherspoon, who drafted the Rhode Island referendums, said, "These are smokescreens for people who are pro-abortion." He insisted the amendment would simply give the state legislature guidelines on drafting new laws if the high court's position on abortion changes.
Pro-choice activists view the referendums as another effort by right-to-life groups to keep the issue before the public and perhaps take advantage of complacent pro-choice supporters by pushing a referendum that matters more in some uncertain future than it will today.
"It's a great organizing tactic because it gives the zealots something to do on their own territory," said Bill Hamilton of Planned Parenthood.
The Arkansas pro-life group has gathered the required signatures and will file formally on June 30. In 1984, the committee lost its referendum drive three weeks before the election when the state Supreme Court ruled that the name of the amendment -- The Unborn Child Amendment -- was misleading. This year, the referendum will be called "The Limitation on Abortion and Abortion Funding Amendment."
The other pro-life campaigns, in Washington, Massachusetts and Oregon, all seek to end state funding for abortion.
The battle could be particularly close in Washington, where voters defeated a similar referendum 53 percent to 47 percent in 1984.
Pro-life groups in Washington have not filed the required number of signatures yet, but pro-choice proponents already are gearing up to fight the measure.
"They have mailed their brochures to every fundamentalist church in the state, so I think they'll get the signatures," said Anne Fennessy of National Abortion Rights Action League chapter in Washington.
The referendum is already on the ballot in Oregon, where the pro-choice and pro-life sides are sharply drawn. Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), an activist on the pro-choice front, won a tough primary campaign over former Baptist pastor Joe Lutz, who mobilized the pro-life community and captured 43 percent of the vote.
The Massachusetts referendum, approved at the state's constitutional convention in April, does not call for an outright ban on funding. Instead, it allows the state to regulate or prohibit abortion and halt public and private funding -- as long as the bounds of the U.S. Constitution are not exceeded.