Abortion law to be on ballot 'battle' expected

July 23, 1991|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- After verifying signatures on thousands of petitions, the state elections board has made it official: Maryland's new abortion law will appear on the November 1992 ballot -- and Marylanders can expect an expensive, full-scale political battle to be waged over the issue.

Yesterday's announcement was a foregone conclusion for both abortion opponents and abortion-rights advocates, who already have spent months organizing for next summer's big campaigns.

Budget estimates say each side will have to raise at least $1 million, with some observers guessing the campaigns will cost many times that.

At issue is Maryland's new abortion law, approved by the General Assembly Feb. 18 and signed into law by Gov. William Donald Schaefer 35 minutes later.

The law, blocked from taking effect by the referendum, allows abortion without restrictions until the time in pregnancy when a fetus might be able to live outside the womb. After that time, abortion is allowed only to protect a woman's health or if the fetus is severely deformed.

Anti-abortion groups condemned the measure as one of the most liberal abortion laws in the country. But abortion-rights advocates say the measure merely writes into law the practices that have governed abortion in Maryland since the United States Supreme Court declared abortion legal in its 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

Soon after the bill's passage, abortion opponents organized the Vote Know Coalition (with a slogan: "If you know, you'll vote no") and began collecting signatures to petition the measure to referendum.

By law, the group needed 33,373 valid signatures, or 3 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. By the end-of-June deadline, the Vote Know Coalition had delivered 142,992 signatures -- which its organizers believe is a record for state referendum drives.

Local elections boards around Maryland then went to work validating the names. Vote Know had filed so many excess signatures that, at the suggestion of the attorney general's office, the local boards stopped counting at 53,988.

"It was all done in a period of 12 weeks by a group that had its first organizational meeting Feb. 28," said Walter Maloney, one of the Vote Know founders. "I'd say we're off and running with 143,000 people who put it in writing."

Meanwhile, supporters of the right to abortion have been organizing as well as they prepare for the 1992 ballot fight.

James Guest, president of Planned Parenthood of Maryland and chairman of the new Campaign to Save the Right to Choose, said his umbrella group is doing "fundamental grass-roots organizing" now. The average voter, he said, probably won't see much campaign activity until next spring.

"The easy part is to get the signatures," Mr. Guest said. "The job now is to . . . get people to the polls."

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