ANNAPOLIS -- Abortion-rights supporters won crucial preliminary Senate approval yesterday of a bill intended to keep most abortions legal in Maryland regardless of future U.S. Supreme Court actions.
Debate on the legislation lasted a relatively brief 5 1/2 hours. Last year, an anti-abortion filibuster on a similar bill ran on for eight days, paralyzing the Senate and ultimately leading to the bill's death.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, praised the Senate for its orderly handling of the bill and 13 attempted amendments. But opponents of the measure were not pleased.
"I don't think the bill is in the public interest, and I hope the House has more sense than the Senate did," said Sen. John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel, who led the futile effort to narrow the circumstances in which abortion would be allowed.
Even opponents such as Senator Cade concede the Senate is likely to give final approval to the bill when it comes up for a final vote, probably Tuesday. But then the measure must go to the House of Delegates, where it faces obstacles.
Abortion opponents are expected to try again to add limits like those defeated in the Senate, including: testing to determine if the fetus can survive outside the womb; required reporting of abortions by clinics; and restrictions on abortion beginning with the second trimester of pregnancy.
On the other side of the issue, delegates who support the right to abortion may want to liberalize the bill by stripping a clause that would require that a parent be notified, in many cases, before a minor has an abortion.
For those who support the bill, any changes in the House are considered politically risky. Even the most insignificant amendment would require the bill to be returned to the Senate for another vote.
Such changes not only could jeopardize the support it now has in the Senate, but could bring the issue up later in the session when opponents would have a better chance of delaying or even killing it with a filibuster.
"I hope that the House of Delegates understands that this is not a perfect bill but it's the best we could do," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore, one of the abortion-rights leaders in the Legislature. "If your objective is to improve the circumstances for the women of Maryland, you would not change this bill."
Sponsored by the Senate's leadership, the bill approved yesterday would write into law what has been the practice in Maryland since the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed the right to abortion in the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision: Abortion would be allowed without government interference until the time in pregnancy when the fetus might be able to live outside the womb.
Later, abortions could be performed only to protect the life or health of the woman or if the fetus was deformed.
The measure repeals the only abortion law now on Maryland's books -- a 1968 law that has been held as unenforceable since the Roe decision. It allows abortions only in hospitals after approval of a review board, and only in cases of rape and fetal deformity or to protect the mother's health.
One critical point of controversy in the bill that advanced in the Senate yesterday is a requirement for a parent to be notified before a doctor performs an abortion on a minor.
Abortion-rights advocates have staunchly opposed parental-notice provisions, fearing that girls would obtain dangerous illegal abortions rather than let their parents know of the pregnancy. But yesterday, some of the advocates said they would rather accept the clause now than risk wounding the bill.
"I will remain opposed to parental notification," said Karyn Strickler of the Maryland affiliate of the National Abortion Rights Action League. "But we got a lot in this bill."
Delegate Lawrence A. LaMotte, D-Baltimore County, said he was not certain if abortion-rights members would move for amendments in the House. "There's strong feeling" against parental notice, Mr. LaMotte said. "There were a lot of people who campaigned hard and strong in the last election and feel they have an obligation" to oppose parental notice.
In the Senate yesterday, the parental-notice clause was one of the provisions that abortion opponents attempted to strengthen. The rights of parents are not protected, they said, because parental notification is not required if the doctor believes notification would not be "in the best interest" of the girl.
"The way this bill is drafted, I would dare to say [that] never will a parent be notified," said Sen. James C. Simpson, D-Charles.
Senate President Miller assumed personal control of the issue this year, thwarting efforts by anti-abortion senators to wage a successful filibuster by bringing the legislation to the Senate floor early in the 90-day session.
"The dynamics are different [this year]," said Sen. Mary H. Boergers, D-Montgomery, who defeated an anti-abortion incumbent by running on an abortion-rights platform last year. "As long as you know [Senate President] Miller has 32 votes for cloture [to cut off debate], the will to filibuster fades."
Mr. Miller said the change from last year began in last fall's election campaigns.
"I think the issue became much more crystallized following the vigorous debates in the September and November elections," he said. "Last year, senators and delegates were much more uncertain about how their own constituents felt on this issue. This year, they're more certain of their positions, and were more set in their beliefs."