Abortion foes confident of petition drive's success

May 28, 1991|By Sandy Banisky

This is the easy part, leaders of the Vote Know Coalition say. By midnight Friday, the anti-abortion organization campaigning

to petition Maryland's new abortion law to referendum must deliver its first installment of signatures to the secretary of state.

"A foregone conclusion," says coalition spokesman Art Sawyer. He does not anticipate any trouble in turning over the 11,124 signatures the state must have before June 1.

By the end of June, 33,373 signatures must be delivered to the state-- 3 percent of the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. "That's not going to be a problem," Mr. Sawyer said.

But after those petitions are turned over to the state, the Vote Know Coalition moves on to a bigger task: the long campaign to defeat the new abortion law on the November, 1992 ballot.

It's a campaign that people on both sides of the issue expect to be intense and expensive.

How expensive? No one will say if they've drawn up budgets yet. But both camps say they're confident they can raise whatever it takes towin.

"If they're going to be spending a million bucks plus, then we'll be spending a million bucks plus," said James Guest, head of Planned Parenthood of Maryland. The money, he adds, would be better spent on birth-control programs.

At stake is the abortion bill passed by the legislature Feb. 18 and signed into law by Gov. William Donald Schaefer 35 minutes later.

The law allows abortion without government restrictions until the time in pregnancy when the fetus might be able to survive outside the womb and later if the woman's health is in danger or the fetus has gross abnormalities.

As the legislature voted that evening, Steve Shaneman, who heads the anti-abortion Family Protection Lobby, stood outside the House chamber with other abortion opponents and vowed to take the new bill to referendum.

Within weeks, the Vote Know Coalition began organizing with the slogan, "When you know, you will vote no." Mr. Shaneman now oversees 11 regional coordinators who are supervising the petition drive in their parts of the state.

Samuel W. Bogley III, the former lieutenant governor who is the chairman of the Vote Know Coalition, said the costs of the petition drive came "pretty much out of pocket. We put the

money up ourselves and stayed pretty much within $5,000."

April 6, the group kicked off their petition drive with a rally outside the State House. On Mother's Day, the group turned to churches, sending volunteers with petitions to parishes around Maryland.

Pat Kelly, of the Catholic Conference, said the church leaders endorsed the petition drive, and some promoted the effort from the pulpit.

With most of the churches covered, the campaign will now "branch out into the general community, the shopping centers, the stores, things like that," Mr. Sawyer said.

The bill's opponents say the measure passed by the legislature this year is the most extreme in the country, a bill that exposes teen-agers, women and the unborn to medical dangers.

The bill's supporters say the legislation merely writes into the law books the procedures that have been in effect since 1973, when the United States Supreme Court made abortion legal with its Roe v. Wade decision. Indeed, it is designed to sustain the Maryland practice if the U. S. Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Abortion-rights advocates say it's not just the bill but women's reproductive freedom and right to privacy that will be on the ballot in 1992.

"They are trying to stop abortion. Make no mistake about it," said Karyn Strickler, head of the Maryland affiliate of the National Abortion Rights Action League.

But Mr. Sawyer says the coalition views the referendum as a vote on a much narrower issue: the new law alone.

"I want to make clear this is not a referendum on abortion," he said. "It's this law. We are not asking people to vote up or down on abortion."

"We feel that the law is so bad that there is something in that law for everyone to dislike -- no matter where they stand on the issue of abortion," he added.

"Our job is to educate the voters of Maryland about this particular bill and not to tell them this [referendum] is going to stop abortion in Maryland," Mr. Bogley said. "It won't. We're going to say they went too far."

In the abortion-rights camp, supporters of the bill see things through a different lens: They say a majority of voters will back the bill no matter what their political stance.

"Liberals will vote yes and conservatives will vote yes," said Steven Rivelis, head of Choice PAC, which raised campaign funds last summer for abortion-rights candidates. "Because keeping government out of our bedrooms is a conservative issue."

He predicts the campaign will cost the abortion-rights group $1.5 million to $2 million.

Abortion-rights groups have been meeting to begin planning their effort to defend the bill at the polls. They expect to create a new organization, with a new staff and a new budget, to run the campaign. Mr. Rivelis said they plan to raise money early, hire consultants, do polls and plan their advertising campaign.

Mr. Guest, of Planned Parenthood, said abortion-rights groups are talking with people who've defeated anti-abortion referendums in other states. And they are also talking with the staff of Maryland's 1988 gun-control campaign, which defeated the National Rifle Association's press to kill that bill.

Both sides say they will start spreading their messages this fall, probably by sending speakers out to local groups. But everyone expects the more intense campaigning -- replete with expensive newspaper ads and flashy television spots -- to begin in earnest next summer.

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