Lee Minto, Director of Planned Parenthood from 1967 to 1993, recalls the history of abortion reform

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 1/01/1900
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2643

Lee Minto (b. 1927), executive director of Planned Parenthood of Seattle-King County from 1967 until her retirement in 1993, played a key role in the campaign for Referendum 20, which legalized abortion in Washington state in 1970. Fifteen other states had enacted liberalized abortion laws by that time, but Washington was the first to put the issue before the voters. In this interview, conducted for Historylink by Cassandra Tate on Aug. 31, 2000, Minto recalls the early days of the abortion rights campaign in Washington.

The Interview

"It goes back to Sam Goldenberg (1921-2011), a local psychologist, who was concerned as a psychologist about the number of women coming to him to get certified to get an abortion. In those days it was possible if you had significant psychological problems to get a hospital medical committee of physicians to certify that you could have an abortion. But permission was rarely given and it took a lot of money to go through the process. It was a situation that made a lot of people uncomfortable.

"There were also places where you could go undercover to get abortions, but these weren’t always safe. Physicians were outraged at the number of septic abortions coming out of some of these places. However, if a woman had $1,000, there was a travel agency in Seattle that would arrange for a woman to go to Japan and have a legal, safe termination there. If you had money you could do this. But it was not an equitable way to get medical care. And it was not desirable — to have to go to a foreign country at such a vulnerable time.

"In 1967, Sam called a meeting of professionals in the city to talk about this situation — physicians, psychologists, lawyers, ministers, a group of diverse professionals. I was invited because I was involved with Planned Parenthood and I was also the administrator at University Unitarian Church. Our minister had been asked to join and he asked me to go in his stead because he was overcommitted. I already had an interest because of my experience with having people come to the church looking for help, desperate for help. Whether it was an unwanted pregnancy or an out of wedlock pregnancy women came to churches for assistance. That’s how I became aware of the tremendous need.

"This was following the time when Sherri Finkbine in Arizona had had a bad result from thalidomide and wanted to access an abortion in this country and had to go to Sweden instead. [Finkbine, an Arizona television personality, unsuccessfully attempted to get a legal abortion in the United States in 1962, after learning that the drug thalidomide, which she had taken early in her pregnancy, caused severe fetal abnormalities.] That case was widely talked about. It seemed to open up a dialog among interested people to do something about this. People were beginning to talk about the issue of legal abortion all over the country.

"So our group of people came together in Seattle to try to come up with what we thought was the best way to change the law in Washington state. We went about it in a very methodical way, looking at all the laws around the United States and Europe. We met every two weeks and then later every week. The person who did most of the drafting of the law that finally we came up with was a local attorney named Palmer Smith. By that time we had added a couple of senators from the state legislature to the committee. One of them was Joel Pritchard. He became the primary sponsor of the referendum.

"There was a great deal of pressure by 1970; a great head of steam building up. Our group, now called the Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform, worked very hard. Referendum 20 was probably the most thoroughly discussed bill that Washington voters had ever had a chance to vote on. There were town meetings all over the state. The people of the state voted 56.5 percent for this law, voting to leave the decision on abortion up to a woman and her doctor, with certain restrictions — you had to be under 16 weeks pregnant, be a resident, and have consent of husband or guardian. Those were limitations we didn’t want but the legislature insisted and so we had to live with them for a few years, until Roe v. Wade and other Supreme Court decisions made them all moot after 1973.

"Some of the pressure came out of the political shenanigans that had taken place in Olympia when we tried to get a reform bill out the first time, in 1969. For example, the chairman of the Rules Committee, a Catholic, wouldn’t let it get out of the committee and onto the floor for a vote. That was perceived as very unfair and there was a lot of coverage in the press about how unfair it was. When we tried again, in 1970, we made an effort to get endorsements from as broad a range of groups as we could. We even had the Parent-Teachers Association vote in favor of this referendum, and that caused them some trouble later on (chuckle). I don’t think the PTA ever endorsed a controversial political issue again.

"Virtually all the medical associations went on record as being in favor of this reform legislation, as did various legal groups, church groups, the League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union, a whole variety of statewide organizations. The head of Council of Churches [the Rev. Everett J. Jensen] organized the clergy.

"We didn’t have NOW [National Organization of Women] or NARAL [National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws]. Those groups came later. Subsequent to this referendum, we’ve had several other votes on abortion issues in the legislature. For example, in the 1980s, there were efforts by right to life groups to defund abortions for low income women. At that point, there was more feminist involvement. But with Referendum 20, there was very little identified feminist involvement.

"Those of us who worked on this, I guess it would be fair to say we were less concerned about women’s rights than women’s health. The medical people who were involved had all had direct experience with the very harmful effects of back alley abortions. Women’s rights were mentioned but we softened it a bit. Women paid attention to the referendum, they were heavily involved in it, in speaking about it — I personally gave more than 100 speeches about it — and there were a number of other women who were outspoken on the issue. But when the vote was taken, we had more men vote for it than women.

"Dan Evans [then governor] was a great help to us, and Joel Pritchard [then a state senator, from Seattle] and Slade Gorton [then attorney general]. The most powerful people supporting it in Olympia were Republicans. And most of them have stuck with us, except Slade.

"At first we thought the most direct and immediate way to deal with the problem was with a law passed by the legislature. But we couldn’t get it out of the legislature. Only after we were unable to go through the legislature did we consider another route. At first we considered challenging the existing law in the Supreme Court. But then someone — I’m not sure who — suggested the idea of a referendum. That way the legislature could avoid having to vote on it directly.

"Our major opponent was an organization called Human Life. It was then a direct offshoot of the Roman Catholic Church. I can remember a billboard they had that just infuriated people. It had a bloody baby’s foot, dripping blood; it was just grotesque. It made more friends for us than it did for them. They also made an effort to label this an issue of genocide, implying that it was aimed at black people. They weren’t well organized or very sophisticated at that time

"Dr. [A. Frans] Koome had an electrifying impact on the issue. [Koome, a Renton physician, announced on Nov. 27, 1969, that he had been performing illegal abortions in his clinic.] I think he said he had done 3,000. He was doing safe abortions, and charging very little. It hit like a bombshell. The county prosecutor looked into it, but he couldn’t find anyone to testify against him.

"Dr. Koome wanted to call attention to how desperate women were. Most people living, as most people do, in their own little niches, are unaware of the tragedies other people face. It electrified people to know there was this kind of need. It hadn’t been talked about. People didn’t talk about sex much in those days. It was only in 1965 that the Supreme Court of the United States finally struck down, in Griswold v. Connecticut, the Connecticut statute prohibiting the use of birth control, ruling that it violated personal and constitutional rights of marital privacy. People forget what it was really like in those days.

"I remember one young man who came to see me at Planned Parenthood. He just wept in my office. He had unfortunately gotten an 18-year-old woman pregnant. They weren’t in love, he wasn’t planning to marry her, but they had had sex and she had gotten pregnant and he felt responsible. He worked at a body shop, I think. He had talked to some of the men at the place where he worked and had gotten the name of someone who was supposed to be able to do an abortion. He was told it would cost $400. He didn’t have any money; the only thing he owned was his car. He sold his car to get the $400. He took her to the place where she was supposed to get the abortion, and the man raped her. Took the money and left — and didn’t do an abortion. The young woman ended up in the psychiatric ward at Harborview. The boy came to me to ask what to do. I couldn’t tell him.

"There are so many stories like that, etched on my mind."


Sources:

Interview of Lee Minto by Cassandra Tate, Seattle, August 31, 2000.


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