House calls breather on abortion bill Weekend set aside for final lobbying

February 17, 1991|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Weary legislators called a weekend-long truce in the battle over abortion early yesterday, scheduled a final House of Delegates vote on a abortion-rights bill for 4 p.m. tomorrow and went home to get some sleep.

But advocates on both sides of the issue will be awake all weekend, using the legislative delay for last-ditch lobbying.

"The plan is to get to our people over the weekend and exhort them to get in touch with their elected officials from sun-up Monday until 4 p.m," Richard J. Dowling, of the Maryland Catholic Conference, an opponent of the bill, said outside the House of Delegates chamber at 1 a.m. yesterday as tired delegates were leaving for the night.

"We've got our lists," said Steven Rivelis, of Choice PAC, member of a coalition of abortion-rights groups. "We'll be talking to people all weekend."

At stake is a bill that would allow abortions without government interference until the time in pregnancy when the fetus might be able to survive outside the womb. Later in pregnancy, abortion would be allowed only to protect the life or health of the woman or if the fetus is defective.

The supporters of the abortion-rights bill believe they have a majority in the House and will spend the weekend calling delegates to guard against any defections.

The opponents of the measure will declare a victory if they can attach an amendment to the bill. Any changes would require the bill be sent back to the Senate, which passed the measure last week. And President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, has warned that he would not bring the contentious issue back to the floor -- meaning the bill would die.

"We still feel very confident we have the votes," Delegate Lawrence A. LaMotte, D-Baltimore County, one of the abortion-rights leaders in the House, said early yesterday.

The abortion-rights bill had seemed so certain of passage Friday that Gov. William Donald Schaefer had reserved 2 p.m. for a bill-signing ceremony.

But Friday morning, House abortion opponents began using parliamentary delaying tactics to stall the measure.

Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, determined to bring the emotional issue to a final vote, declared he would call the body into session each night at midnight until the abortion opponents gave up.

Before 1 a.m. yesterday, the two sides agreed to a compromise: The anti-abortion forces could delay a vote until tomorrow. In return, they would offer no further amendments and try no further stalling tactics.

Delegate Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, leader of the abortion opponents, said he agreed to the deal because "it's Saturday morning, quarter to one. It's no time to make public policy."

Having bought time, the abortion opponents will try to win votes for the only amendment they have left: a change in the so-called "conscience clause," which protects health-care workers who do not believe in abortions from having to be perform or participate in them.

Catholic hospitals, backed by Baltimore Archbishop William H. Keeler, say the bill would change the conscience clause so that it no longer protects people who choose not to refer women for abortion.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., however, in a letter late yesterday said that the new bill does not remove the protection for people who do not refer women for abortions, except in cases where an abortion is medically advisable and the woman suffered injury because her doctor did not refer her for one.

Mr. Dowling, of the Catholic Conference, said the amendment speaks to "a fundamental issue of religious liberty."

"I think some of the delegates don't yet understand how seriously people of faith, any faith, feel about threats to their consciences and religious freedoms," Mr. Dowling said. "I think some of them are going to find out."

The pressure had begun Thursday, when Archbishop Keeler held a press conference to protest the language in the conscience clause.

On Friday, one abortion-rights delegate said his wife's obstetrician, "the man who delivered my children" at Mercy Hospital, had visited him to ask him to amend the bill.

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