It took Gov. William Donald Schaefer nearly an entire term in office to choose a stand on the abortion question.
But abortion-rights advocates are moving quickly to assess how the governor's position can be used to boost their goal of passing pro-choice legislation during the 1991 General Assembly.
Schaefer, who had publicly complained that no one but reporters cared about his stand on abortion, electrified abortion-rights groups when made public his decision that he opposes restrictions on a woman's right to a legal abortion.
"In the final analysis, it comes down to just this: Donald Schaefer, the individual, is pro-life, but Donald Schaefer, the governor, is pro-choice," Schaefer said in a three-page position paper that was made public Friday.
Although grateful for his support, some abortion-rights activists said they sensed that the governor's statement, coming so soon after several anti-abortion lawmakers lost seats in the primary election, was at least partly motivated by Schaefer's political instincts.
"I think he knows which way the wind's blowing," said Karyn Strickler, executive director of the Maryland affiliate of the National Abortions Rights Action League. "I think he saw in the primary some upset races over this issue."
One anti-abortion activist, who asked not to be identified, suggested that Schaefer, who is expected to win a second term in Annapolis, has political ambitions beyond the governor's office and issued his abortion position only as groundwork.
"The only reason the guy came out with this is because he wants to do something in four years," said the activist. "He wants to be a national candidate. He's got to be kidding himself, but what else can there be?"
Just how sincere Schaefer is about his abortion position also came under further questioning because it was widely known in State House circles that abortion-rights supporters on the governor's staff had been pressuring him to take a liberal stand.
"We're not talking about a deep thinker here," said one activist. "He said what he was told to say."
But at least one pro-choice lawmaker who fought against the bitter Senate abortion filibuster that disrupted the 1990 session said she believes politics has nothing to do with the governor's announcement.
"People who say he did it for that don't know him well," said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-City.
"I think he thought it through," Hoffman said. "As mayor of [Baltimore], it was not one of those things he had to deal with. He was torn."
Regardless of the governor's motives for breaking his silence on the issue, advocates on both sides are weighing the impact it will have on future legislation.
"We're going to start talking right away," said Hoffman, adding that she hopes either Schaefer or House and Senate leadership will introduce legislation next year to repeal the restrictive, but unenforceable, abortion law already on Maryland's books and replace it with one that reflects a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling making abortions widely available.
Abortion-rights forces are confident that after the November general election, they will have enough votes to prevent a repetition of last year's filibuster. They also predict that their interests will be shared by a majority in the House of Delegates.
Schaefer's statement that he will veto "any restrictive [abortion] legislation that reaches my desk" should deter anti-abortion bills, according to Pat Riviere, a lobbyist for the Maryland chapter of the National Organization for Women.
"I think it will mean that a lot of bad legislation won't be introduced and we won't have to waste time fighting that," Riviere said.
Nevertheless, abortion-rights groups do not expect an easy victory when lawmakers return to work in Annapolis in January. Aside from opposition from the other side, pro-choice advocates could find themselves feuding with each other over the question of whether a minor should be allowed to have an abortion without her parents or guardians knowledge. Some moderates on the abortion issue argue that the so-called parental notification clause is necessary to make an abortion law acceptable to the public.
But NARAL's Strickler disagreed. "There's a strong consensus in the choice coalition against it," she said. "Any bill that comes with it, we'll work to kill it."