After wrenching self-examination, Gov. William Donald Schaefer now describes himself as a pro-life individual and a pro-choice governor. It is the latter designation that will profoundly affect Maryland's handling of the abortion issue, and we applaud the governor for recognizing that his public responsibilities transcend his personal views.
The skeptic might say that Mr. Schaefer is just another politician who knows how to read the election returns, which were decidedly pro-choice in the Sept. 11 primary. The purist might chide him for not revealing his position in time for decisive action at the last General Assembly. Yet, what leaps from the governor's words is a sensitivity that can easily qualify as statesmanship.
At this juncture, there are old restrictive state laws on the books that were rendered inactive by the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision affirming abortion rights in far more liberal terms. Because the court has shifted rightward, especially in its 1989 Webster ruling, there is a chance the high tribunal might in effect reactivate those laws and other restrictive anti-abortion laws in other states.
It is this situation that gave urgency to last spring's efforts by pro-choice General Assembly members to enact a more liberal state law in case it has to go into operation. But a pro-life filibuster, aided by Mr. Schaefer's non-committal stance at the time, stymied action. With the even more non-committal Judge David Souter about to take retired Justice William Brennan's place on the Supreme Court, General Assembly action becomes even more critical.
In his abortion statement, Mr. Schaefer says "the women of Maryland should make decisions for themselves based on their personal moral and religious views." We agree totally. But missing from his written statement is any explicit pledge of support for a more liberal state abortion law.
In conversations with this newspaper, however, the governor has said he would sign legislation to replace the 1968 law, perhaps would make Medicaid provisions more generous for poor women seeking abortions and would subject to constitutional scrutiny any attempt to require teen-age girls to inform their parents of a pregnancy or get their approval for an abortion.
What a promising turn of events! The next stage requires discussions with pro-choice lawmakers so that an agreed bill can be introduced in the General Assembly in January and enacted promptly -- perhaps in six weeks. This would clear the agenda for action on top-priority economic issues that will go a long way in determining the success or failure of a second Schaefer term. In the meantime, there is an election campaign that will require Mr. Schaefer and his Republican opponent, William Shepard, to expound their views on many issues -- not least abortion.
Let debate begin. Marylanders will insist, we believe, on a pro-choice governor.