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Column: Ronald Reagan once signed nation’s most liberal abortion law in California. How politics have changed

California Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon at the state Capitol in 2020.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

People often ask me how things have changed at California’s Capitol over the last 60 years. One answer: Politics today is a lot more knee-jerk partisan.

A striking example is abortion.

That’s true of many issues. More legislators used to think for themselves and not be so subservient to party dogma.

Now, abortion is again front and center after news broke last month that the U.S. Supreme Court was on the verge of overturning Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized pregnancy terminations nationwide.

In Sacramento, there has been political gameplaying by Democrats and rote partisan voting by both parties.

That’s in stark contrast to 55 years ago this month when the Democratic-controlled Legislature narrowly passed and new Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the nation’s most liberal abortion law.

Party politics wasn’t a factor. Whether a legislator was a Democrat or a Republican didn’t matter on abortion. Lawmakers were divided by religion. Protestants generally supported the bill and Catholics opposed it.

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What went wrong with Roe vs. Wade, and why the court’s effort to resolve the abortion controversy back in 1973 has instead led to decades of division.

The rookie governor, a Protestant, was torn by conflicting advice and moral conflicts. George Steffes, who lobbied the Legislature for Reagan, remembers when he committed to signing the bill.

The author, Democratic state Sen. Tony Beilenson of Beverly Hills, was invited to Reagan’s office to make his pitch for the measure.

“At the end,” Steffes told me, “Reagan said, ‘Tony, I don’t agree with you. But most of the legislators have voted for this. Republican leaders voted for it and asked me to sign it. And I’m going to sign it.’

“It’s one of the great examples of how Reagan was willing to listen to everybody,” says Steffes, who attended the meeting. “He didn’t close his mind because the bill was coming from members of the other party.”

In this case, support was bipartisan — and so was the opposition.

The Assembly floor jockey was Republican Craig Biddle of Riverside. Assembly Republican leader Robert Monagan supported it. A key Senate committee vote was cast by the Republican chairman. Future Republican Gov. George Deukmejian voted “aye” on the Senate floor, where the measure passed with no votes to spare.

Catholic Democrats, including the very liberal Assemblyman John Vasconcellos of San Jose, strongly opposed the bill.

One Catholic Democrat who voted “yes” was future Assembly Speaker Bob Moretti of Van Nuys, a Notre Dame University graduate. During the Assembly floor debate, I watched Moretti sitting at his desk, head buried in his hands, weeping before casting his vote.

California legislative leaders introduced a bill Wednesday that would ask voters to enshrine abortion and contraceptive rights in the state Constitution.

Skip ahead to Monday, when the Senate voted to place a measure on the November ballot to amend the California Constitution with a specific guarantee for abortion rights in this state.

It needed a two-thirds majority vote, 27. It passed 29 to 8. All the “yes” votes came from Democrats and all the “no” votes were from Republicans. The measure was sent to the Assembly, where passage was virtually ensured.

The unified Senate GOP opposition was somewhat jarring because abortion rights are overwhelmingly favored by California voters.

An April poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that 76% of likely voters opposed overturning Roe — 87% of Democrats, 77% of independents and 54% of Republicans. Every geographic region favored keeping Roe’s protections.

Only nine of the Senate’s 40 seats are held by Republicans. One reason the GOP has fallen into irrelevancy in Sacramento is its stubborn opposition to social issues such as abortion. The party makes a fat Democratic target in left-leaning California.

Even Gov. Gavin Newsom’s underdog Republican reelection opponent, state Sen. Brian Dahle of rural Bieber in Lassen County, voted against the measure. But he wisely kept quiet during debate.

Contrast the current Republican gubernatorial aspirant with Reagan and two later GOP governors, Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both favored abortion rights. And it’s one reason Wilson was elected in 1990.

But let’s be honest, California Democrats are blatantly politicizing the issue. They’re trying to distract voters from the GOP’s best issues of inflation, homelessness and crime. And they’re counting on the threat to abortion rights to entice voters to the polls and increase Democratic turnout.

Senate leader Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), the constitutional amendment’s author, acknowledged the politicizing during an interview, although she insisted it’s not her motive.

“I know people are pushing it for political reasons and think it may turn out the vote, but for me that’s not where I’m coming from,” Atkins told me.

She’s credible on that insistence. Atkins ran women’s health clinics that provided abortions in San Diego and Los Angeles for six years and has heard many heartbreaking stories from pregnant women.

Although her measure would have absolutely no effect on current abortion rights in California — they’re solid — she’s afraid future federal courts, if not a governor and Legislature, could weaken the state’s protective statute. A state constitutional amendment would preempt federal tampering, she believes.

But no one really thinks a future California governor or Legislature would dare try to take away abortion rights.

A recent UC San Diego poll showed that the ballot measure on abortion could increase the turnout of independent voters by nearly seven percentage points, and about the same amount by women of child-bearing age.

That’s what this is all about for most Democratic operatives.

Regardless, voter approval of the ballot measure would be a loud voice for abortion rights.

That’s one thing that hasn’t changed in the last half-century: California’s voice being shouted across America. Unfortunately, now it has more of a political ring.


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