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Wednesday, September 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Tilting at windmills in the abortion debate

The fliers that flooded my mail slot before the Sept. 14 election said, "100 percent pro-choice." Why did I need to know? Because a state representative could change the abortion law? No. The law is federal.

Four years ago, Rick Larsen beat John Koster for a seat in Congress by running a TV ad that jackhammered Koster for being against abortion in the case of rape and incest. Could a congressman change the law about that? No. But the ads (rape and incest!) worked. Larsen is in Congress and Koster is only on the Snohomish County Council.

Now the Republicans are running for governor a man who believes the Roman Catholic doctrine that it is wrong to kill a human embryo. "I believe every soul is valuable," says Dino Rossi. But he says: "Name something I could do about it." There is one thing: If one of our U.S. senators died, the governor could appoint a new senator who might have a chance to vote to confirm a justice of the Supreme Court. What is the chance of that?

"In seven years in the (state) Senate," Rossi says, "I never sponsored a bill on abortion." Yet, he is labeled. The Stranger calls him "anti-choice state senator Dino Rossi."

Justice Richard Sanders of the Washington Supreme Court is also Catholic. He said a few vague words of appreciation to an anti-abortion rally in 1995, minutes after being sworn in. He did it only the one time, but he was labeled.

In nine years, Sanders has weighed in on 1,200 cases, concerning everything from murder to the Mariner stadium. "Not a single one has had anything to do with abortion," Sanders says. "And I don't expect ever to see one. But if I did, my hands would be tied by the U.S. Supreme Court."

For 30 years, the hobgoblin has been raised that abortion is about to be made illegal. "Now, more than ever, the freedom of choice is in peril," shouts the Web page of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington. This group urges all to vote for "choice" (the soft and dainty term for abortion) candidates "at every level of government," from governor to commissioner of public lands.

If I believed abortion might be banned by the commissioner of public lands (NARAL endorses Mike Cooper, Democrat), I would be moved. I don't think the American people could stand abortion being illegal, particularly if the law were enforced with penalties commensurate with ending a human life. But for three decades, the issue has been locked in a box. None can unlock it except nine justices, and these nine are not going to do it.

There are left a few issues, all of them marginal. President Bush was able to stop U.S. foreign-aid money from funding abortion services overseas. To activists, that was a big deal. There was a proposal to penalize killing a fetus or embryo in the course of committing a federal crime. That was another big deal to activists, who felt it "anti-choice" to increase the penalty for killing a pregnant woman. Really it wasn't, but to them it was.

The other side also tilts at windmills. On the Web page of Human Life of Washington is a link to a bill by Rep. Maralyn Chase, D-Edmonds. The bill would have the state Department of Health issue a pamphlet urging families to have no more than two children. Human Life of Washington can't change the abortion law, but maybe it can stop a lefty pamphlet.

Such is democracy. Our politicians make a show of taking sides in a war they can't fight. Once elected, they get down to the real business of government, which is mostly to spend the taxpayers' money. Only the recipients of the spending, however, care enough to vote for those who supply it. To the rest of us, budgets are boring. But talk about abortion — or gay marriage, or the Pledge of Allegiance — and we wake up. We vote. Some of us even write checks.

When it really doesn't matter, why not just say whatever people want to hear? Maybe more aspiring pols should follow the lead of Rep. David Simpson, Democrat of Everett. For the Sept. 14 primary, he was endorsed, briefly, by Human Life of Washington and NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, having scored 100 percent on each of their questionnaires.

Sad to say, he lost.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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