Pour One for Jan Bianchi (1944-2016), Author of World's Best Abortion Legislation
Women of color have long had a love-hate relationship with white feminists. While the two groups clearly have the united goal of dismantling the patriarchy, all too often the efforts are co-opted by white women. “Wins” are typically not “wins for women” but in fact, “wins for white women.” The pro-choice movement has been no different.
However, in that dark landscape of frustration is Jan Bianchi. And though she has recently passed away, like every other unsung hero, her legacy will live on. Unlike many white feminists, her work has greatly benefited women of color.
With an increasing number of TRAP laws and the recent battle against Texas’s HB2 legislation, the discussion around reproductive rights is largely focused on stemming the seemingly contagious spread of anti-woman legislation. One can’t help but wonder what it would look like if the opposite were true.
Jan Bianchi was one of the co-authors of the Washington State’s Initiative 120 that was passed in 1991 by popular vote and created the most liberal abortion legislation in the country. Washington is also the only state that legalized abortion through popular vote rather than through legislators.
Flying in the face of common practice, Initiative 120 removed any strict gestational limits. Instead of arbitrarily picking a week of pregnancy in which abortion would no longer be allowed, it set the limits based on viability. While this idea is not new, what was cutting-edge was how Jan and her co-authors defined “viability.”
As Stewart Jay, another drafter of the legislation explained, “We felt Roe v. Wade is too vague because it leaves the question of fetal viability to the judgment of physicians under an equally vague standard of what 'meaningful life' is.” Instead, Initiative 120 defined “viability” to be when the fetus could “survive outside the uterus without the application of extraordinary medical measures.” Given the propensity of congress and other politicians to believe that their political experience gives them the expertise to make medical judgments, this definition is pivotal and far more robust.
Furthermore, it has a clause that states that as long as physicians make a “good faith judgment” about viability, they are immune to prosecution.
By writing it into state law, it’s far more durable as it does not depend on Roe v. Wade. In a move of brilliance, the initiative also stipulated that after enactment, it could not be altered for 2 years.