High Court takes on abortion Referendum is timely reflection on Roe Advocates and foes seize opportunity to gain support

January 22, 1992|By Thomas W. Waldron and Sandy Banisky

Whatever the U.S. Supreme Court decides this summer in the Pennsylvania case it agreed yesterday to review, it will be up to voters here to set the official policy on abortion rights in Maryland this fall.

It is an election question whose process may be widely watched and copied elsewhere around the nation, because the Supreme Court's decision to take up the Pennsylvania case has fueled the political battle, and Maryland is now the only state with an abortion referendum on its November ballot.

Although efforts are stirring to place questions for or against abortion before the voters in other states, only here is the issue scheduled to be heard. And in Maryland, the electorate will vote on a law already passed by the state legislature, one which incorporates the same rights to abortion that the Supreme Court granted a generation ago -- and is now widely expected to rescind.

As the present court progressively moves to reduce the right to abortion that it established 19 years ago today, the momentum in Maryland seems to favor the supporters of that right, and the contest between its backers and opponents now takes on a critical energy as the calendar moves toward fall.

"People are seeing that there's a trend, a national trend toward reasonable restrictions on abortion," said Roger J. Stenson, executive director of Maryland Right to Life. The Supreme Court's decision to take the Pennsylvania case "could be helpful," he said.

If the court upholds the Pennsylvania law, the decision "casts into relief how extreme the law in Maryland actually is," said Burke Balch, state legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee.

On the other side of the issue, Karyn Strickler, who heads the Maryland affiliate of the National Abortion Rights Action League, says the potential for narrowing the right to abortion will only bring new volunteers into the campaign to keep abortion widely available.

"Unfortunately, bad times for the issue are good organizing times," Ms. Strickler said. "We have more momentum going into the referendum."

"Whether or not they overturn the protections of Roe in this case, the handwriting is on the wall," said James Guest, president of Planned Parenthood of Maryland and chairman of the coalition formed to uphold Maryland's law. "Maryland can't rely on the Supreme Court to continue to protect the freedom of choice we now enjoy."

Polls have consistently shown that even Marylanders who think abortion is wrong believe the government should not interfere with a woman's right to have one.

The only law now on Maryland's books is a 1968 measure that would require all abortions to be performed in a hospital after approval by a review panel. It also would allow abortions only if the woman's health is in danger, the fetus is impaired or the pregnancy resulted from a rape.

That law was rendered unconstitutional in 1973 by the Roe decision. But attorneys say it would be revived if the court overturns Roe and the new Maryland statute -- passed after much struggle by the General Assembly last February -- fails at the polls in November.

Maryland's recent political history on the issue is contentious.

In the 1990 legislative session, an anti-abortion minority in the Maryland Senate blocked enactment of an abortion-rights bill with an eight-day filibuster that left legislators on both sides bruised and bitter.

The defeated abortion-rights forces took the fight from Annapolis into the 1990 legislative campaigns, where the supporters of the right to abortion took credit for the defeat of several anti-abortion senators.

Last Feb. 18, a law meant to protect abortion rights in Maryland completed its glide through the legislature. Thirty-five minutes later, it was signed into law by Gov. William Donald Schaefer as the bill's supporters cheered and its opponents pledged to defeat the new law at referendum.

By July, after weeks of collecting signatures on petitions, the law's opponents won a spot on this November's ballot for the abortion issue. The political battle over the question is expected to consume most of the summer, test the organizing abilities of both opponents and supporters -- and cost more than $1 million for each side.

While the new law is being challenged, Marylanders are watching the Supreme Court to see if its ruling in the Pennsylvania case will affect abortion practices here.

Should the court uphold the Pennsylvania law -- but not go farther to overturn the right to abortion -- Maryland's abortion policies probably would not be affected, lawyers say.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said his office will join other states in a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court in the Pennsylvania case to strike down the state law and uphold the right to abortion.

Mr. Curran said he wishes the court would "do what it's supposed to do and decide the issue once and for all."

To do less, he said, invites each state legislature to wage annual battles over the issue.

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