ANNAPOLIS -- A House committee revisited yesterday an issue at the edge of February's debate over abortion, clarifying that only in medical emergencies must doctors and nurses who don't believe in abortion refer patients for the procedure
Backed by an unusual coalition of legislators from both sides of the issue, the bill aims to clarify the so-called conscience clause, which says health-care workers who do not believe in abortion do not have to perform them or participate in them.
In February, as the legislature prepared to pass an abortion-rights law, opponents protested that the measure changed the conscience clause and would require doctors and nurses who don't believe in abortion to refer patients anyway.
But the bill passed yesterday by the House Environmental Matters Committee makes clear that doctors would be open to (( lawsuits only if they failed to refer a woman for an abortion and the continued pregnancy caused her death or led to serious medical problems.
"This was the loose end that was left over, in many of our minds," said Delegate Kenneth H. Masters, D-Baltimore County, an abortion foe who negotiated with abortion-rights supporters on the bill approved yesterday.
Delegate Lawrence A. LaMotte, D-Baltimore County, an abortion-rights supporter, said, "This is really a good-faith gesture on our part to alleviate concerns Catholic hospitals have."
Skittish about reopening any issue related to the contentious abortion topic, the two sides had been meeting quietly for weeks to settle the wording on the bill.
They agreed that they would move forward only if the bill could be passed without controversy. Both House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, have said they do not want even so narrow an issue as the conscience clause before them if the abortion debate might be rekindled.
"The deal is, there will be no debate, no discussion, no amendments, no nothing," Mr. LaMotte said.
But when the sponsors brought the product of their low-key negotiations to the committee yesterday, they found they may have been working a little too quietly.
Delegate Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore, demanded to know how many women had been involved in the negotiations.
The two spokesmen for the bill -- Delegates Masters and LaMotte -- confessed that the answer was none.
That prompted the committee chairman, Ronald A. Guns, D-Cecil, to delay the vote for two hours to explain the bill to more female delegates. Startled by Ms. Kelley's charge of sexism, Mr. LaMotte said later that many women had attended earlier briefings on the progress of the talks.
Nonetheless, the sponsors spent the next hour inviting female legislators to an impromptu briefing, where about a dozen women said they approved of the bill.
"I see you as good guys with white hats on," said Ms. Kelley, who backs the right to abortion. "But it's a chauvinistic way of doing things."
Within an hour of that session, the committee approved the measure. The bill will come to the House floor today, and must win Senate approval before time runs out on this legislative session at midnight Monday.