ANNAPOLIS -- About 200 abortion opponents, led by former Lt. Gov. Samuel W. Bogley III, rallied in front of the State House yesterday to launch their effort to overturn Maryland's new abortion-rights law by referendum.
Organizers said their group, The Vote kNOw Coalition, must gather 33,373 verified signatures of registered voters -- at least one-third by the end of May and the remainder by June 30 -- in order to put the law on the ballot in November 1992.
"We're going to keep this grass-roots effort growing and growing and growing," Mr. Bogley told supporters at the afternoon rally. "Be bold. Go beyond your comfort level. Be aggressive and make everyone understand what our legislators have done."
The law, which was passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer in February, ensures a woman's right to an abortion up until the fetus is viable outside the womb.
The law, scheduled to go into effect July 1, also would permit an abortion later in a pregnancy to save the life or health of the woman or if the fetus is deformed.
Abortion-rights advocates have hailed the measure as a way to ensure that abortion is legal even if the U.S. Supreme Court should overturn the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which nullified anti-abortion laws.
But abortion opponents claim that the legislation goes beyond current law and that a referendum would simply keep things as they are now, albeit vulnerable to a new Supreme Court ruling.
"If we're successful in getting it on the ballot, then it will be time to map out a strategy to convince voters that we're right," said Charles J. Sikorsky, a Carney lawyer who helped draft the petition's wording.
One of the potential arguments in the debate was eliminated yesterday when the Senate enacted "conscience clause" legislation. The bill, geared largely to objections from Catholic hospitals and doctors, states that hospitals, hospital directors, hospital governing boards and others are not required to refer people for abortions and other medical procedures.
The bill moved swiftly yesterday, going from the Rules Committee to the Judicial Proceedings Committee to passage by the full Senate in one afternoon.
Walter H. Maloney Jr., a Beltsville lawyer, said the coalition against the state's abortion law was formed one month ago on an ad-hoc basis, drawing from organizations traditionally opposed to abortion. If the petition drive is successful, the new law will be held in abeyance until the 1992 ballot.
Historically, efforts to overturn new laws by referendum are successful about half the time. The last statewide referendum campaign came in 1988, when opponents of a law to ban cheap and easily concealed handguns lost at the ballot despite a $6 million assist from the National Rifle Association.
Yesterday's rally represented something of a homecoming for Mr. Bogley, who served as lieutenant governor during the first term of Harry R. Hughes.
Mr. Bogley was dropped from the ticket in 1982 in favor of J. Joseph Curran Jr., in part because the two candidates held opposing views on the issue of abortion.
The 49-year-old Mr. Bogley chided the state Senate for "scrambling" to amend the abortion law through the conscience clause measure in the final days of the legislative session.
He described himself and former state Sen. S. Frank Shore, a Montgomery Democrat who lost a re-election bid last year, as the "Peter and Paul of the pro-life movement" because they were both "tossed" from the State House over the abortion issue.
If the petition campaign is successful, the presence of a referendum on abortion in next year's general election ballot could be significant. The first signatory on the petition was Republican Alan L. Keyes, a potential U.S. Senate candidate against incumbent Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski.
Abortion-rights advocates are also gearing up campaigns with a possible referendum in mind. Last year, several key anti-abortion lawmakers lost re-election bids because of their stance on the issue.