Abortion foes taking steps to fight back Opponents of new law plan to take issue to referendum.

February 19, 1991|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Evening Sun Staff

While supporters of a new and controversial abortion-rights law celebrated their victory last night at Annapolis nightspots, grim-faced abortion foes had one word on their lips: referendum.

Opponents of the abortion measure, which Gov. William Donald Schaefer signed into law last night just 35 minutes after it passed the House of Delegates by an 84-52 vote, said they plan to begin collecting the signatures and money needed to petition the law to referendum in 1992.

The Senate passed it 29-18 on Feb. 11.

Yesterday's vote concluded a year-long abortion battle in the General Assembly. Anti-abortion activists blamed the outcome on the November election -- in which a number of anti-abortion candidates lost -- and on the media -- which they claim failed to fully report details of a bill to protect the right to abortion.

The new abortion-rights law guarantees a woman's right to an abortion as practiced under the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision. It grants adult women unrestricted access to abortions up to the time when a fetus is "viable," or able to survive outside the womb. After that time, abortions could be performed only to protect a woman's health or in cases where the fetus is deformed.

The law also requires, in some cases, that doctors notify a parent or guardian of a minor under the age of 18 before she obtains an abortion. Doctors will not have to follow the requirement if they decided that notification would not be in the best interests of the girl.

Abortion foes say a referendum to overturn the law, which went into effect as soon as it was signed about 6:35 p.m. by the governor, is likely to be a long and costly struggle.

"We estimate it will cost us about $1 million because we don't have the media on our side," said Pat Kelly, an anti-abortion lobbyist and frequent critic of the media's handling of the issue. "We'll have to pay."

Abortion foes will have to collect about 32,400 voters' signatures -- or 3 percent of the number of voters who cast ballots in the 1990 gubernatorial election -- to petition the law to referendum in the next general election.

Although abortion foes consider the new law too liberal, abortion-rights supporters describe it as a compromise because contains the parental notification language.

While the notification clause generated the most controversy when the bill was debated in the Senate, House members focused on a part of the bill that would require doctors and other health-care practitioners to give abortion referrals as part of standard medical practices.

Outraged that the bill did not contain a so-called "conscience clause" that would excuse doctors for religious reasons,

anti-abortion lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to attach an amendment that would have restored the exemption. The amendment failed 73-61.

Some abortion-rights lawmakers said they had no problem with the exemption itself, but fought the amendment because they said it was designed solely to lead to the bill's death if it were returned to the Senate. Under legislative procedure, an amended bill must be sent back to the chamber of its origin.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, who watched in dismay last year when an eight-day filibuster disrupted Senate work, said he would have the abortion-rights bill killed if it came back.

Over the weekend, lobbyists for the Roman Catholic Church and other anti-abortion groups launched an intense attack against the bill to persuade Catholic legislators in the House to vote for the proposed conscience clause.

Schaefer, who said he signed the bill into law "because I think it's the right thing to do," said he might introduce his own "conscience bill" today.

"I don't think it's necessary," said Del. Lawrence A. LaMotte, D-Balto. Co., one of the House abortion-rights leaders. "But, if it comes before me for a vote, I'll probably vote for it."

While the final vote on the bill came as little surprise to anyone, the outcome was particularly painful for at least one spectator.

"I just think this is one of the saddest days in the history of the state," said former state Sen. Francis X. Kelly of Baltimore County, whose November election loss was pinned to his anti-abortion stance.

"I'm very upset about this," Kelly said, adding that he may join the referendum movement.

Before he was outvoted by abortion-rights opponents in the House, Del. Timothy Maloney, D-Prince George's, the floor leader for the anti-abortion forces, said the bill would become "the most liberal, the most extreme, abortion law in the entire 50 states."

But abortion-rights lobbyists disagree.

"If anything, this is a step back," said Karyn Strickler, a lobbyist for the National Abortion Rights Action League, which fought the parental-notification clause.

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