On abortion, Schaefer looks past private view

MICHAEL OLESKER

September 25, 1990|By MICHAEL OLESKER

William Donald Schaefer is a 68-year-old, lifelong bachelor who made a terrible mistake about abortion. He let his personal embarrassment get in the way of his political position.

Now the governor has finally told us where he stands, and he's said exactly the right thing: While he is personally against abortion, what happens between a woman and her doctor is no business of his, and certainly no business of the government.

We live in a cynical age. The instinct in some quarters is to imagine Schaefer finally seeing the cold light of political statistics -- the thudding defeats of anti-abortion legislators, the polls showing voters overwhelmingly wanting freedom of choice, the 100,000 protest votes that went to the semiknown Fred Griisser.

But this isn't about politics. It's about a man who watched the abortion fight waged right outside his office last winter, and felt he was out of his element, and wanted to be left alone.

All through the filibuster that left the State House emotionally strung out, Schaefer was a man in profound personal discomfort. Reporters bugged him about abortion, and he wanted to hide. Legislators, most of whom happen to be male, took the floor to declare themselves proprietors of women's bodies, and Schaefer cringed.

For the governor, ducking the fight wasn't a political calculation. This was a man feeling that his age and his marital status and his gender made him a fraudulent voice in the great emotional issue of our time.

It's as simple as this: He felt out of place and uncomfortable talking about a woman's uterus in public. And so he ducked out when he should have spoken out.

Give Schaefer an alley to pave, give him a pep talk to deliver, and he's in his glory. Give him a businessman to buttonhole, give him a mayor to ignore, he's happy as a clam. Give him a tantrum to throw, he's in his element.

Give him an issue about human intimacy, and he cringes. Give him an issue about cement, about bridges and buildings, and he marries it. Give him people in trouble, and he embraces them, he bleeds for them -- but only as they relate to traditional relationships of politicians to constituents. This is a man whose funny hats and seal pool photo opportunities cover a deep and abiding personal shyness. He's spent a lifetime distancing himself.

Too late to salvage last year's abortion-rights bill but not too late to give hope for a peaceful settlement next winter, Schaefer finally issued his stance on abortion last Friday.

''It comes down to just this,'' Schaefer said in a three-page statement. ''Donald Schaefer, the individual, is pro-life, but Donald Schaefer, the governor, is pro-choice.''

He called it ''the most agonizing issue I've ever had to face.'' For months, he talked privately with politicians and clergy who pulled him one way, with staff members who dragged him another, with women who have had to face abortions who spoke in a language Schaefer had never considered.

Finally, late last week, he declared, ''As an individual, my inclination is to preserve life. . . . [But] people with moral and religious views as compelling and as significant as mine have a different view of the abortion issue. And just as I trust my own moral and religious views, and as much as I want my views respected, I trust and respect theirs as well.

''Many people of good faith believe that there are times when having an abortion is a proper moral and religious decision. Even more believe the decision that whether or not to have an abortion should be reserved for the woman, not the state of Maryland or for the politicians.

''I agree. The women of Maryland should make decisions for themselves based on their personal moral and religious views.''

Is any of this calculated? Of course. The governor knows how to read. He saw Frank Kelly standing on the Senate floor last winter, day after day, condemning abortion. Kelly went down in flames on primary Election Day. He saw Frank Shore and Margaret Schweinhaut and Frank Komenda fight against abortion rights. They, too, won't be going back to Annapolis.

Was Schaefer's statement political? Yes, but less than cynics imagine. He is now down to perhaps the last election of his life, and he will win it under any circumstances. But he was hurt by Griisser's unexpected 100,000 votes and took it -- legitimately -- as a personal slur.

He has always invested his emotions in his job, in the nuts and bolts of government, in helping people and hoping they would love him -- at a polite distance -- for his efforts.

He does not want people turning against him over an issue that's not even his.

He's uncomfortable with abortion? Of course. Nobody's comfortable with it. Nobody likes abortion, especially the people who need one. But it's their predicament, and their choice. It's not the government's.

For William Donald Schaefer to declare his position is not only one of the most uncomfortable things he's done but, belatedly and privately, one of the bravest.

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