A majority of Marylanders say they'd vote in November for a new law that would keep most abortions legal here no matter what the Supreme Court decides on the issue, according to the Sun Poll.
The survey offers an early reading on Marylanders' view of the issue that probably will be the hottest referendum question on the November ballot. Still ahead, though, is a summer and fall that will be filled with intense campaigning by groups both for and against the measure.
"There is reason for people to have abortions," says Mary Funk, a poll respondent who agreed to be interviewed later. "If you're leaving babies to be born in a home where they wouldn't have food or clothing, where they might be born crippled or something, where they might be a hardship on the mother, you should allow abortion then," says Ms. Funk, a retired glass factory worker from Lansdowne.
"If you feel you're not capable of raising a child, you should practice safe sex," says Richard Fortgang, a government intelligence analyst from Accokeek. "But if a woman's pregnant and feels she cannot or will not be able to raise a child, then she should have the option up to some point."
About 57 percent of 1,210 Maryland voters surveyed say they'd support the measure, which would allow abortion without government interference until the time in pregnancy when the fetus might be able to survive outside the womb. Later abortions would be allowed only if the woman's health or life is in danger or the fetus is grossly deformed.
About 31 percent would vote to reject the measure.
Among the opponents is Mike Cartwright, who lives in Frederick County. "I would vote against it because it's not specific," he says. "I believe in abortion for rape or for incest, or if the woman's life is involved. I don't believe in abortion for birth control or because it's a little boy and you wanted a little girl."
But like many others polled, Mr. Cartwright expresses his uncertainty over the issue.
"To me, it's not a black-and-white question," he says. "It's such a difficult issue for me. I don't think it's up to another person to have any say in it. That's the problem with this country right now. We've got entirely too much government interference in a lot of things."
Polling specialists say abortion is a notoriously difficult issue on which to measure public opinion because so many people don't like abortion but also object to government restrictions on such a private matter.
The latest Sun Poll findings echo public opinion measured in earlier Maryland surveys on the abortion issue. A Sun Poll in December 1989 found that even in cases where they think abortion may be wrong, Marylanders overwhelmingly believed that the government should not prevent abortion.
The statute set for the November ballot was enacted by the legislature last February after battles in two contentious legislative sessions.
Supporters of the measure were intent on putting into law a new statute that would preserve Maryland's current policies on abortion even if the Supreme Court should overturn its 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which guaranteed the right to abortion.
Opponents of the measure protested that it is an "abortionists' rights bill" that offers too few restrictions on the practice and too few medical protections for women.
Court observers believe the justices will vote this term or next to overturn the Roe ruling. If the federal guarantee should be removed, the states would be left to decide whether and under what circumstances they would allow abortion.
Maryland's new statute was to have taken effect last July 1. But that date was suspended when abortion opponents petitioned the law to referendum on November's ballot. Now, all state voters will have the chance to vote on the issue.
Backers of the bill say the poll only supports what they already believe: that most Marylanders favor keeping abortion legal.
"That's about as clear as it can be," says James Guest, president of Planned Parenthood of Maryland and chairman of the Campaign to Save the Right to Choose. "Once again, it says Marylanders trust women to make the most personal decisions."
"It's good news, but it's going to be a very tough fight," he says.
A spokeswoman for the umbrella group leading the fight against the measure rejects the poll results, saying the question asked did not accurately reflect how liberal the new law is.
She suggests people did not understand the potential effects of the law they were saying they would support.
Frederica Mathewes-Green,communications director of the Pro-Life Education Foundation of Maryland Inc., says, "I think it ends up being an irrelevant poll. . . . The only possible beneficiary" of the new law, she says, would be "abortion mills that make money."
If the new law should be rejected in November, and if the Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade, Maryland abortion practices would be governed by a 1968 law that has remained on the books but was deemed unconstitutional after the 1973 Roe decision.
The 1968 law would allow abortions only if the woman's health is in danger, the pregnancy is the result of a rape or the fetus is deformed. The law also requires abortions to be performed only in hospitals and only with the approval of a hospital review board.
Abortion-rights supporters say the law is so restrictive that only a small percentage of the abortions performed each year would be allowed. But opponents like Ms. Mathewes-Green call the 1968 measure "very liberal." The measure on the November ballot, she adds, is even less restrictive.
Larry Haley, a West Baltimore steel worker, has a view typical of the majority opinion. "They have a right to do what they want with their own bodies," he says.
1992, the Baltimore Sun
Would you support a law allowing abortion up to the point when a fetus could survive, or later if the mother's life is at stake or if fetus is deformed