After emerging unscathed from committee, a controversial abortion-rights bill was scheduled for its first floor vote in the House of Delegates late today, and abortion-rights lawmakers predict the bill can win final House passage tomorrow.
The bill, which won passage by a wide margin in the Senate on Tuesday, would guarantee Maryland women the same rights to have abortions they now have under the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision even if the high court later modified that ruling.
TC The bill offers similar abortion guidelines set forth under the Roe decision, but contains a controversial provision that would require a parent or guardian of a girl under age 18 to 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 or that "notification would not be in the best interest of the minor."
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 mental or physical health of the mother or in cases where the fetus is deformed.
Despite nine attempts by anti-abortion lawmakers to weaken the bill with restrictive amendments, the measure passed out of the House Environmental Matters Committee by a 17-6 vote, with committee Chairman Del. Ronald A. Guns, D-Eastern Shore, abstaining.
Guns, who has said he opposes most abortions, said yesterday that he decided not to vote on the amendments or the bill because it could be seen as using his influence as committee chief on the sensitive issue and because "it wouldn't have changed anything."
"I'll have my vote Friday," he added.
Earlier in the day, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Eastern Shore, urged delegates to debate the bill freely and offer any amendments they had. Although Mitchell steered the bill onto a legislative fast track after it passed the Senate, he reassured delegates yesterday that he was not supporting one side over the other.
Abortion foes on the committee tried unsuccessfully to attach various amendments that would have limited a woman's access to abortions and to require that parents give their consent in most cases in which minors seek the operation.
"We must recognize this bill for what it is -- a very liberal abortion bill," said Del. Donald B. Elliott, R-Carroll, whose proposed amendment to ban abortions for reasons of gender selection failed by only three votes.
Anti-abortion lobbyists have admitted they stand little chance of defeating the bill, but they reacted with surprise at yesterday's lopsided committee vote.
"I'm appalled and the citizens of Maryland should be appalled," said Pat Kelly, of the Maryland Catholic Conference.
Kelly said she had expected more committee members to have supported anti-abortion amendments and to have voted against the bill.
"I don't understand some of these votes," she said.
Most abortion-rights lobbyists have agreed not to oppose the bill, even though they had battled against the parental-notification clause.
"I feel compromised and defiled, but it seems dangerous to rock the boat," said Karyn Strickler, a lobbyist with the National Abortion Rights Action League.
A coalition of abortion-rights lawmakers and lobbyists has vowed to fight any amendments that abortion opponents may propose on the House floor.
"We fully expect them to happen, and we're prepared," said Del. Lawrence A. LaMotte, D-Balto. Co., an abortion-rights leader in the House. "We have torn this bill apart and looked at every angle. We're ready."