ANNAPOLIS -- An abortion-rights bill that had locked the Maryland General Assembly in controversy for two sessions was enacted by the House of Delegates last night -- and Gov. William Donald Schaefer immediately signed the measure into law, amid cheers and whoops from the bill's backers.
The bill's approval, on a vote of 84-52, came despite a furious last weekend of lobbying, led by the Roman Catholic Church, against the measure.
"What the bill says, I think, is right," Governor Schaefer said, as he put his signature to the bill at 6 p.m., 35 minutes after its approval in the House.
"A historic moment," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, one of the strongest abortion-rights legislators in the Senate.
"I cast that vote for my two daughters, that they will have the right to privacy in the years ahead," said Delegate Lawrence A. LaMotte, D-Baltimore County, who with Baltimore Democrat Samuel I. Rosenberg shepherded the bill through the House.
"We feel this is a tragedy for the woman and unborn children of the state of Maryland," said Ann Philburn of the National Right to Life Committee.
The Catholic Church's last-ditch lobbying against the measure focused on the so-called "conscience clause," the provision in the bill that protects doctors, nurses and other health-care workers who do not believe in abortions from having to participate in or perform them.
The bill's opponents argued that the new bill would no longer offer legal protections to health-care workers who choose not to refer patients for abortions.
At yesterday's bill-signing, Mr. Schaefer said he would support, or even introduce, new legislation today to clarify the "conscience clause" in the new law.
"The people in the Catholic faith feel very strongly about this," the governor said.
Maryland's new abortion-rights law is intended to protect the right to abortion here even if the U.S. Supreme Court should overturn its 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which guaranteed the right to abortion.
The new law allows abortion without government interference until the time in pregnancy when the fetus might be able to survive outside the womb, or later to save the life or health of the woman or if the fetus has abnormalities.
The law also would require a doctor to notify a parent before a minor has an abortion.
However, the doctor would not be required to notify the parents if he concluded that telling a parent would not be in the girl's best interest; that notification might lead to emotional or physical abuse; or that the girl was mature enough to make her own decision.
The law will take effect July 1 -- unless opponents petition it to referendum. In that event, the law would not go into effect unless it was approved at the polls in November 1992.
Abortion opponents, who had managed to delay a final vote on the bill Friday, failed last night in their last attempt to block the measure.
"We did our best," said Delegate Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, one of the staunchest abortion opponents in the House. "We just didn't have the horses."
Several of the legislature's strongest abortion opponents had been targeted for defeat in the fall elections by abortion-rights advocates determined to pass a new law this year. Last March, an eight-day Senate filibuster led to the death of a measure similar to the bill passed yesterday.
Last night, House opponents of the bill tried but failed to block enactment of the bill by appealing to the House's respect for religious freedom and by working to attach an amendment to the conscience clause.
Without an amendment, Mr. Maloney had said, the new law would leave Catholic hospitals open to challenge of their licenses and school nurses under pressure to refer students for abortions.
Led by Catholic groups, the opponents of the abortion bill pushed hard all weekend for the amendment. Delegates reported lobbying by nuns, priests and Catholic doctors.
But the bill's supporters fended off the amendment, knowing that any change to the Senate version of the bill could mean its death. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, had warned that he would not bring the abortion issue back to the Senate this year.
James Guest, head of Planned Parenthood of Maryland, said a coalition of abortion-rights groups worked to counteract the religious lobbying.
"We were working just as hard," Mr. Guest said just after the House vote. "And the fact is, the people believe in the right to choose."
"The work is not finished," said Karyn Strickler of the Maryland affiliate of the National Abortion Rights Action League. "There's a possibility the anti-choice people will take this bill to referendum."
But Joy Ebauer of Maryland Right to Life said her group has no plans to start a referendum drive. "Look at the NRA [National Rifle Association]," she said. "They spent $6 million" in trying to defeat a gun-control measure at referendum in 1988 "and they lost anyway. We just don't have the money."
Pat Kelly of the Maryland Catholic Conference said, "We really haven't made a firm decision" about beginning a referendum drive.