ANNAPOLIS -- After refusing for months to define his stand on "the most agonizing issue I've ever had to face," Gov. William Donald Schaefer has declared himself a supporter of laws that would keep abortion widely available, though he is personally opposed to most abortions.
"It comes down to just this," the governor said. "Donald Schaefer, the individual, is pro-life, but Donald Schaefer, the governor, is pro-choice.
"As a matter of public policy, I will not sign any legislation that restricts the ability of women to make their own personal decisions in this matter as long as I am governor, and I will veto any restrictive legislation that reaches my desk."
He added that he would support repeal of the only abortion la on Maryland's books -- a 1968 statute that has been ruled unenforceable since the Supreme Court ruled abortion legal in 1973. That law allowed abortion if the pregnancy threatened the woman's health or resulted from a reported rape, or if the fetus ran the risk of severe deformity. Under that statute, abortions could be performed only in hospitals after approval by a review board.
Mr. Schaefer, admittedly uncomfortable with the issue, ha declined -- often testily -- to detail his position all year. He said yesterday he did not make his statement during his primary re-election campaign because "my timing is now."
The recent primary elections, in which several anti-abortio senators were defeated by abortion-rights challengers, had no bearing on hisdecision to make his statement public, he insisted.
In settling on a position that divides his personal opinion from his public responsibility, Mr. Schaefer joins New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo in saying that no matter what his private belief, government should not interfere with a woman's decision.
"The women of Maryland should make decisions for themselves based on their personal moral and religious views," the statement said.
Advocates of abortion rights praised the governor for his stand.
"This is tremendous news for the women of Maryland," said Karyn Strickler, the head of the state affiliate of the National Abortion Rights Action League.
"On the heels of this election, the governor's statement is furthe indication of the fact that the elected officials of Maryland have a clear mandate to pass pro-choice legislation," she said.
Abortion opponents, however, were disappointed and accused the governor of timing his decision for political ends.
"I guess he's not on our side," said Joy Ebauer, president of Maryland Right to Life. "The fact that he waited until after the primary means it's just a political decision. He's trying to work both sides of the street, like politicians do."
Richard Dowling, head of the Maryland Catholic Conference, said he was "saddened" by the statement, but added, "This doesn't diminish our commitment or our enthusiasm for debate."
William S. Shepard, the Republican nominee for governor, dismissed Mr. Schaefer's position as another sign of his "lack of leadership."
Mr. Shepard would allow abortion in cases of rape, incest and gross deformities in the fetus, as well as to protect the life of the woman. He charged that the governor had "flip-flopped" on the issue six weeks before the election.
The Schaefer position paper, which he said was written in May, outlines several programs he has supported to help women facing unwanted pregnancies, including increased funds for adoption programs and new counseling programs for teen-agers.
Mr. Schaefer said he believed strongly in adoption but knew that some children were very hard to place.
And he added, "I've seen teen-aged mothers on the street handle babies like they're rag dolls. I've been to hospitals and seen alcoholic babies, the AIDS babies, the syphilis babies."
Mr. Schaefer said he had not decided whether he would send the legislature his own bill defining the right to abortion or simply offer support to a bill introduced by legislators.
He also said he was not sure what provisions should be included in such legislation -- except that he did not approve of abortions beyond the time the fetus might be able to live outside the womb. He mentioned the 20th to 24th weeks of pregnancy as a guideline for beginning restrictions on abortion.
Mr. Schaefer said he did not know if he could back a provision that would require notification to a parent before a minor had an abortion because the Supreme Court had raised issues of constitutionality about such laws in other states.
As a single man, the governor said, he has felt great discomfort in having Marylanders seek his opinion on a problem so deeply personal and important -- but a problem that has never affected him.
"Abortion is not a household word with the governor," he said, and the increasing pressure he felt to take a stand left him uneasy.
"You know I don't duck fights," Mr. Schaefer said. "This is a little different. This is a moral issue."
Privately, he said, he firmly opposes abortion except in cases of rape or incest, if the woman's health is threatened or if the fetus is deformed or retarded.
But Mr. Schaefer had more trouble fashioning a gubernatoria position. He said he consulted religious and non-religious people, listened to reviews of various laws and talked with women who had had abortions and those who had decided not to.
The governor also said he had received "stacks of letters" from people on both sides of the issue urging him to take a stand. He offered one as an example: a handwritten letter from a Millersville women dated Sept. 13, two days after the primary, in which the governor was challenged by Frederick M. Griisser Jr. Mr. Griisser says government should not be involved in the abortion issue.
"Without having your position on the abortion issue, I found myself forced to vote for Griisser," said the writer, who described herself as a Schaefer admirer. "You are a leader and you need to take a stand."