Enlisting the help of churches across Maryland, abortion opponents are confident of gathering enough signatures on petitions to send the state's recently passed abortion bill to referendum.
Volunteers began their petition drive in earnest Sunday, collecting signatures of registered voters in dozens of churches in Baltimore and perhaps hundreds across the state after Mother's Day services, according to organizers.
Under the state constitution, anti-abortion activists must collect 33,373 signatures -- or 3 percent of the qualified voters in the state -- by the end of June to put the issue on the ballot in November 1992.
"I believe everybody realizes that's almost a given," Samuel W. Bogley 3rd said about getting the required number of signatures. He was lieutenant governor under Gov. Harry R. Hughes and is now chairman of the coalition fighting the abortion bill.
The coalition began its petition drive by forging links with churches, both Catholic and Protestant, whose pastors allowed the gathering of signatures at church Sunday.
"In many churches, it seems they are naturally supportive," said James Brewster, who organized the petition drive in Baltimore.
Abortion-rights activists also are sure that the opponents will collect enough signatures to take the issue to a vote.
"It's not a lot of signatures one needs to get something on the ballot," said Steve Rivelis, who is helping organize a coalition to support the abortion measure. "We have to act on the assumption they'll do it. If not, fine. But you can't sit back and wait to get started."
The General Assembly passed and Gov. William Donald Schaefer signed an abortion-rights bill during the recently concluded legislative session.
The law guarantees a woman's right to an abortion until the time when the fetus is viable outside the womb. The measure is supposed to go into effect July 1. If the petition drive is successful, the law will remain on hold until the 1992 referendum.
Both sides are just beginning to focus on the looming referendum, which is still almost 18 months away. Each is looking for supporters to recruit and sources of money to tap.
One natural source of support, the Catholic Church, may not help financially.
"For some reason or the other, the suggestion must be out there that the Catholic Church intends to bankroll this operation," said Richard Dowling, the chief legislative lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference. "It simply isn't possible at a time when Catholic dioceses across the country, here and elsewhere, are concerned about keeping their schools open and about continuing the high level of social services to which the church is committed."
Rivelis said abortion-rights activists hope to raise at least $1 million.
"It's not an easy task to raise over a million dollars," Rivelis said. "But, if you start early and educate your supporters, I'm confident the citizens of Maryland will come through with the money necessary to keep abortion safe and legal."
The anti-abortion side talks about educating the public as well, saying that the liberal nature of the abortion law will turn off many Marylanders.
Opponents note that many people oppose allowing minors to have abortions without their parents' knowledge.
The bill codifies current practice, which gives a physician wide freedom to perform an abortion without informing the parents.
"There are probably people who feel abortion is appropriate but not in such a liberal manner," Brewster said.
Bogley is a veteran of the anti-abortion fight. In 1982, Hughes dumped him as his running mate mainly because of their divergent views on abortion.