Last in Statehood but First in Reproductive Choice

Image by thecrazyfilmgirl, Flickr Creative Commons

Image by thecrazyfilmgirl, Flickr Creative Commons

AAUW members are fighting for women’s reproductive freedom all over the United States, but it’s part of a long legacy: AAUW members helped legalize abortion in the first place.

In 1970, AAUW of Hawaii spearheaded an effort to repeal the state’s restrictive abortion law. The century-old law stated that abortion would only be available when necessary to save the life of the mother. The momentum began one year earlier, in April 1969, at the AAUW of Hawaii board meeting. There, AAUW members, led by then-Legislative Chair Joan Hayes, voted to support repealing the law. In a statement written to the AAUW national office, Hayes explained that the group believed abortion should be a personal decision between a woman and her physician.

According to Hayes, “Women told us that they had just been waiting for some women’s group to make the start.” So AAUW of Hawaii did just that. Members organized an AAUW-sponsored Citizens’ Seminar on Abortion. The event drew legislators, community and religious organizations, labor unions, business groups, professional associations, and citizens. They gathered to listen to reasoned debate on the issue.

At the seminar, state Senator Vincent Yano, in a surprising move, announced that he supported an outright repeal of the law. Other legislators had proposed simply weakening it. Yano was a devout Catholic with 10 children and was personally opposed to abortion. Despite his own personal beliefs, he said that he did not have the right to impose his views on others. Hawaii’s then-Gov. John Burns, who also opposed abortion, ultimately decided to support the repeal but made his personal views clear by never signing the legislation (in Hawaii, bills that aren’t vetoed or signed become law after 10 days).

The new law made abortion available to Hawaii residents in an approved hospital by a doctor or surgeon — making the Aloha State the first to legalize abortion. In reflecting upon the success of the campaign, Hayes said, “Women are coming to realize that the right to control their bodies is as important as the right to vote.”

Hawaii led the way, but other states quickly followed suit. AAUW state organizations across the country addressed the issue of reproductive freedom and called for the repeal of restrictive laws in their own communities. In addition, AAUW of Hawaii laid the groundwork for a national resolution in support of women’s right to choose, which passed at the 1971 AAUW National Convention in Dallas.

Hayes, who passed away in 2005, thought the effort was so successful in Hawaii because of the state’s diversity and tolerance and said that Hawaiians were “unafraid to innovate.” How true, considering that it took the U.S. Supreme Court three more years to legalize abortion nationwide.

This article was originally published on the AAUW National website.