Writing an Abortion Law

February 20, 1991

It took two legislative sessions, an emotionally divisive filibuster and a strong statement from voters last fall to persuade the Maryland General Assembly that the time had come to bring the state's abortion law into conformity with the Supreme Court's 1973 landmark Roe vs. Wade decision. As a result, women in Maryland will continue to have the right to decide for themselves in the early stages of pregnancy whether to have an abortion.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer put his signature on the bill just 35 minutes after the 84-52 House vote. Delaying tactics aimed at attaching killer amendments angered House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell and eventually led to the bill's swift approval Monday. Legislators were happy to be done with this volatile issue.

Opponents overstate the impact of the measure. It essentially incorporates the existing Supreme Court stance on abortions into Maryland law. Adult women will have the right to an abortion until a fetus is able to survive outside the womb. Thereafter, abortions would be permitted to protect a woman's health or in cases of fetal deformity. A teen-ager would have to notify at least one parent before obtaining an abortion, unless a physician determines this would not be in her best interests.

A flurry of ancillary bills now are being readied to give the Roman Catholic Church what it wanted in the original measure -- a "conscience clause" excusing doctors for religious reasons from giving abortion referrals as part of standard medical practice. Such clarifying language, though not deemed necessary by the attorney general, ought to win widespread support -- as long as anti-abortion groups don't use it as an excuse to re-open the abortion battle. The legislative phase of this struggle is over in Maryland.

Both pro-abortion and anti-abortion groups have talked about waging a costly and time-consuming petition drive to put all or part of the new law to a referendum vote in 1992. Some abortion-rights backers are unhappy with the parental notification provision and want to challenge that section at the polls. Meanwhile, anti-abortion leaders want to suspend the new law and mount a drive to defeat the law on election day -- despite strong pro-abortion votes in last fall's elections and opinion polls showing Marylanders in favor of abortion rights.

Abortion-rights advocates should not muddy the waters by pushing a referendum drive of their own. They will have their hands full fending off an anti-abortion referendum. Two abortion questions on the 1992 ballot would only confuse voters and increase the chances for electoral mischief.

As we have stated over the years in this column, the Supreme Court wisely ruled that all women -- rich or poor -- should have the right to decide for themselves if they want abortions in the early stages of pregnancy. Maryland has now embraced that legal ruling as its own. Governor Schaefer said he signed the bill into law "because I think it's the right thing to do." We agree.

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