An abortion-rights bill that won state Senate approval yesterday has been steered onto a legislative fast track that could take it through the House of Delegates by this weekend.
"This has been on a fast track from the git-go," said Speaker of the House R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Eastern Shore.
Mitchell asked House members to act quickly on the controversial issue so the legislature can turn to other matters.
"Nobody's going to change anybody's vote," he said, adding that little time is needed for debate because most lawmakers are very familiar with the abortion bill.
By a 29-18 vote, the Senate yesterday passed an abortion-rights bill that would guarantee women in Maryland the same rights to have abortions they now have under the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, even if the high court modified that decision. The new law would repeal a more restrictive state abortion law that has been dormant since Roe vs. Wade.
The bill, which had the backing of Senate leadership, would allow unrestricted access to abortion up to the time when a fetus is able to survive outside the womb. Abortions would be allowed later in pregnancy to protect the health of the mother or in cases where the fetus is deformed.
The bill also would require in specified cases that parents of a girl under age 18 be notified before she can obtain an abortion. Exceptions would be granted when physicians certify that a girl is mature enough to make the abortion decision herself.
The bill is to go before the House Environmental Matters Committee today and reach the House floor by the end of the week.
Anti-abortion forces in the Senate were expected to criticize the measure yesterday when it was brought up for a final vote, but not a word was spoken for or against the bill before the vote.
Although they earlier had opposed the parental-notification provision, abortion-rights advocates in the House quickly rallied behind the Senate bill and predicted swift passage.
"This bill is our best chance to preserve a woman's right to choose," said Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, D-City, an abortion-rights leader in the House.
Rosenberg said there are enough abortion-rights lawmakers in the House to keep other legislators from making the bill either more liberal or more restrictive through amendments.
"Our message is very clear: No amendments to the bill," he said.
Mitchell, who has not taken a public position on the bill's content, said he may keep House members in session until they finish their work on the issue.
"I'll bring them in Saturday if I have to," he said.
Abortion opponents are expected to launch an attack against the bill, focusing in part on a provision that would require doctors to tell women where they can have abortions, even if the consulting physician is opposed to the practice of abortion.
Through the bill, abortion-rights lawmakers "impose their own secular morality on the health-care profession and health-care institution," said Dick Dowling, director of the Maryland Catholic Conference.
Dowling said the bill would force Catholics to violate their beliefs or face civil-liability penalties.
"There is no other reason for that [provision] but to compel Catholic health-care providers and facilities either to violate their consciences or violate the law," he said.
Abortion opponents said they will wait to see what happens to the bill in the House before they devise a new strategy. If the bill is amended to make it more liberal, for example, it could face renewed opposition when it is returned to the Senate.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, has threatened to kill the abortion bill if it is returned to the Senate with new amendments.
"It's too early to say whether a filibuster could happen," cautioned Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly, D-Prince George's.