SACRAMENTO, CALIF., SEPT. 10 -- In a significant "right-to-life" victory, the California Senate today passed by a wide margin a bill requiring minors to obtain written permission from a parent or a court before getting an abortion.
The vote may have an effect on the debate over U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, who has said he sees no constitutional right to abortion.
The 25-to-11 favorable vote in the Senate, and an earlier 46-to-28 vote in the State Assembly, came despite heated opposition from abortion-rights groups. The action in one of the country's most liberal state legislatures suggests an antiabortion majority on the Supreme Court could significantly restrict availability of legal abortions. Measures limiting teen-age abortion rights have been approved in 20 other states.
Gov. George Deukmejian (R) has indicated that he will sign the bill.
Brian Johnston, western regional director of the National Right to Life Committee, celebrated today's legislative victory as sign of "a sea change in public opinion in California in particular and reflecting a change throughout the country." The California vote follows a report of a 2.7 percent drop in the number of U.S. abortions from 1982 to 1983, the first decline since records have been kept, and proposed regulations that would block all federally funded family-plannning clinics from providing information about abortion to pregnant women.
Abortion-rights activists said today the California vote shows that local legislators can be intimidated by vocal antiabortion groups that target unfriendly politicians for defeat, even when polls indicate a majority of Americans still support the right to abortion.
Bork is to face Senate Judiciary Committee hearings next week on his confirmation. Analysts have suggested he would vote to leave abortion policy to individual states.
Some commentators have argued that legislatures like California's, led by liberal Democrats, would preserve wide freedom to choose abortion even if the Supreme Court decided there was no constitutional authority for it. In light of California's action and similar bills in other states, this assumption was labeled "nonsense" by Richard Mintz, spokesman for the National Abortion Rights Action League in Washington.
"That's like saying to blacks, let the states decide if segregation is legal. If they make you ride in back of the bus in Alabama, you can go to Illinois and ride in the front of the bus," he said.
Right-to-life supporters have been trying to restrict teen-age rights to abortion in California since 1979, but have been stymied by strong pro-choice leaders of the Assembly and Senate, and particularly by Assemblyman Elihu Harris (D-Oakland), chairman of the Judiciary Committee and representative of an area with a high teen-age pregnancy rate.
Richard Ledford, administrative assistant to the bill's author, Assemblyman Robert Frazee (R-Carlsbad), said Assembly Speaker Willie Brown Jr. (D-San Francisco) last year took a committee chairmanship from Frazee in retaliation for an unsuccessful attempt to get a parental-consent bill past Harris' committee. This year Frazee and his allies succeeded in bypassing Harris and discovered strong support for the bill on the Assembly floor.
Ledford said supporters and voters "look at this as a parental-consent bill, not an abortion bill." Despite popular support for abortion rights, Frazee and right-to-life groups cited polls in California showing 80 percent favoring parental involvement in any decision leading to a child receiving an abortion.
Of the 20 states that have already passed laws requiring parental consent or notification before a minor's abortion, at least 11 have been unable to enforce the law because of court action brought by pro-choice groups. Both supporters and opponents of Frazee's Assembly Bill 2274 expect it also to undergo court challenge, and probably join several other cases that will eventually go before the U.S. Supreme Court.
An estimated 100,000 of the 300,000 abortions done annually in California are performed on teen-agers, officials said. About 1.5 million abortions are conducted each year in the United States.
Johnston and Ledford said California supporters of the new bill have attempted to make it acceptable to court review by requiring the minor to get written consent from only one parent, and allowing the pregnant girl to seek court approval without parental consent in some cases, such as threats of violence from parents. Frazee, Ledford said, "felt this was an important medical decision and parents ought to be involved, if at all possible."
Mintz charged right-to-life supporters with using the consent issue as a smokescreen to cover their assault on all rights to abortion. "They are going after people who don't vote and are not organized, teen-age girls and poor women," he said.