Abortion-rights backers suffer defeats in General Assembly

November 07, 1990|By Sandy Banisky

Abortion-rights activists, who had been hoping for several big victories, instead were stunned by losses in the Maryland House and Senate last night, though they retained majorities in both houses.

Despite the defeats -- including some in districts they had considered safe -- the advocates of legal abortion said they thought they still would have the votes for passage of an abortion-rights bill in the next legislative session. The task, however, probably will not be as simple as they had hoped.

Observers on both sides of the issue said many of the candidates had been defeated not because of their stands on abortion but because of the voters' anger with incumbents and worry over the economy.

In state Senate races, the advocates of abortion rights lost two campaigns they had deemed critical:

In Carroll County, Democrat J. Jeffrey Griffith, a county commissioner heavily supported by abortion-rights money and volunteers, lost in his 5th District Senate race to Republican Larry E. Haines, a businessman and staunch abortion opponent.

In District 14, which is split between Montgomery and Howard counties, Democratic Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, who supports abortion rights, lost to Republican Christopher McCabe, who was endorsed by Maryland Right to Life. Mr. McCabe, however, said he would not declare victory until the more than 1,000 absentee ballots in his district were counted.

And in a race that abortion-rights advocates had hoped to win, Sen. Patricia K. Cushwa, D-Washington, was defeated by Republican Delegate Donald F. Munson.

Abortion-rights candidates also appeared to be losing in several House races, including contests in Baltimore and Howard counties.

In Howard County, Republicans John Morgan and Martin Madden, both of whom oppose abortion in most circumstances, defeated incumbent Democratic delegates, William C. Bevan and Robert J. DiPietro.

In Baltimore County, Democratic Delegate Donna M. Felling, who favors abortion rights, lost to a slate of anti-abortion challengers.

Abortion-rights groups had hoped to win two more Senate seats to give them at least 32 votes in the Senate -- two-thirds of the body, enough to shut down any filibuster that opponents might launch in an effort to stall abortion legislation.

Without those votes, supporters of legal abortion said, passage of a bill keeping abortion widely available just may take longer and entail more negotiation.

The advocates were jubilant in September, when several anti-abortion leaders were defeated in the primary. Last night, they said they thought their issue had been swamped by an anti-incumbent fever and voters' anxiety over the economy.

"I think what we're looking at has nothing at all to do with the abortion issue," said Steven Rivelis, the head of Choice PAC, which had raised about $50,000 for abortion-rights candidates. "It's a message, and it has nothing to do with our issue. The economic issue came up and slapped us in the face."

"I think this race has very little to do with abortion," said Karyn Strickler, head of the Maryland affiliate of the National Abortion Rights Action League.

"I think the voters thought they had won the issue in the primary, and they went on in the general election to vote on other issues that are of concern to them, issues like taxes and the economy."

Michael W. Burns, head of the Maryland Right to Life Political Action Committee, agreed that other issues decided most races: "Obviously, our issue was not the killer silver-bullet issue. Our issue has become less and less important."

Bebe Verdery, lobbyist for Planned Parenthood of Maryland, said that despite last night's upsets, abortion-rights groups had finished the campaign year ahead of their position last year.

"We're in better shape because we have more momentum," Ms. Verdery said. "We have the pro-choice people mobilized, and we have the governor," who declared in September that he would support abortion-rights legislation.

Even before the votes were counted last night, abortion-rights activists were looking ahead to the next campaign, this one to be fought out next winter on the floor of the legislature.

They already had been planning their strategies for passage of a bill that would protect the right to abortion in Maryland -- an effort stalled last year when an eight-day anti-abortion filibuster helped kill an abortion-rights measure.

"The only issue is the size of the majority," Mr. Rivelis said.

With a large enough margin, he said, abortion-rights groups could push for a bill that would include no restrictions and keep abortion legal here even if the U.S. Supreme Court should allow states to limit the procedure.

The only law on Maryland's books now is a 1968 statute that has been held unenforceable since the Roe decision. That law allowed abortions only in hospitals and only if the pregnancy resulted from rape, threatened the life of the woman or would produce a deformed child.

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