Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday that he will campaign for approval of the abortion-rights law on the November ballot -- an effort that leaders on both sides of the issue conclude is aimed primarily at the city's black voters.
In announcing his plan to work for the measure, Mr. Schmoke did not say he would steer his message to any particular group of voters. He said he wants the law, petitioned to referendum by anti-abortion groups, to win because "it's very important that Maryland remain a pro-choice state."
But Karyn Strickler, head of the Maryland affiliate of the National Abortion Rights Action League, said the mayor's commitment will have strong impact on black voters. "People of color in the state are going to be a very important constituency, particularly African-Americans. And I think Mayor Schmoke can be very helpful in educating that community and organizing that community."
In the opposing camp, Pat Kelly, of the Maryland Catholic Conference, called the mayor's entry into the campaign disappointing. And she said it shows he's out of touch with a large segment of city residents. "I guess again it points up what I think is a gut feeling that black politicians truly don't represent their constituency," Mrs. Kelly said, "because it seems to me that black people are pro-life."
At issue is a bill, approved by the legislature last February, that would allow abortion without government interference until the time in pregnancy when the fetus might be able to live outside the womb. Later in pregnancy, abortions would be allowed only if the woman's health was in danger or the fetus deformed.
The bill, meant to keep most abortions legal in Maryland even if the United States Supreme Court should restrict access to abortion, was immediately signed into law by Gov. William Donald Schaefer. But anti-abortion groups blocked the bill by petitioning it to referendum.
Both sides are expected to mount energetic and expensive campaigns as they battle over the measure.
To help supporters of the bill, the mayor said he will encourage voter registration, make speeches, and mobilize his campaign workers and talk "to my friends in the clergy who are conflicted on this matter."
James Guest, who heads Planned Parenthood of Maryland as well as the coalition campaigning to win approval of the new abortion law, said he was "delighted" by the mayor's stand. "I think it's terrific that the mayor of the largest city in Maryland recognizes the importance of the issue and is willing to put his stature and his influence behind the campaign," Mr. Guest said.
But Mrs. Kelly, of the Catholic Conference, said Mr. Schmoke's decision to campaign for the law "strikes me as inappropriate, because I don't see that as the role of mayor of a city. His effort might be better spent dealing with the many problems of Baltimore rather than committing to something like this."
She said she believes Baltimore's black citizens "tend to be pro-life. I think one thing [is] they've had a tough time, many of them, and they appreciate life as a result. Also, they're not so far removed from the slavery issue, when they were deprived of their rights. And third, I think some politicians see it as black genocide. I hear it brought up in circles I'm in."
The Rev. Donald Sterling, pastor of St. Cecilia Roman Catholic Church in Walbrook, said he believes the black community he serves, and the church he leads, are traditionally opposed to abortion. "That's the tradition of the African-American community. You go back to slave times. It's very clear that abortion was not an option. Certainly the idea and the reality of the extended family is a tradition." But he said that "the black community is probably as diverse as any other" and that no one can predict how it will vote.
The Rev. Sidney Daniels, former president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, said he does not believe the clergy organization will take a position on the abortion-rights bill. "I don't get into that abortion issue because -- pray for me when I say this -- white folks is raising all that hell about abortion and we've got poor children starving."