As Marylanders trickled to the polls last Tuesday, one Baltimore County man got a reminder that a more heated election season lies ahead. He reports that, in an unusual twist, he was given campaign literature not as he arrived to vote, but as he left his polling place.
The issue was abortion, and the aim was to solicit voter support in the upcoming referendum on the state's new abortion rights law.
Marylanders may as well brace for an onslaught of persuasion from both sides. Nationally, the issue will also play a role, as Democrats and Republicans continue to take opposing views, and as issues such as aid to international family planning programs get more attention.
On the state level, opponents of Maryland's law will characterize the measure, which basically codifies the compromise embodied Roe vs. Wade, as a boondoggle for abortionists, with too few restrictions and too few medical safeguards for women. Supporters will try to appeal to the core support for legalized abortion that public opinion polls consistently find among Americans.
A recent Sun Poll found that about 57 percent of Maryland voters surveyed said they would support the measure. About 31 percent of respondents said they would vote against this measure, while 12 percent were undecided.
If those numbers hold up on election day, Marylanders will be assured of access to legalized abortion, even if the Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade and passes the issue back to the states.
The Maryland referendum presents the abortion question in its familiar form, the terms on which it effects most Americans: Will women have access to legal abortions in the early stages of pregnancy?
But the country is facing more complex questions in regard to U.S. participation in international family planning efforts -- and there are some intriguing indications that these questions are beginning to influence voter preferences.
The background is important: Since 1984, when the Reagan administration reversed long-standing policy, the United States has withheld financial support from the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the United Nations Population Fund. The policy was an important victory for the anti-abortion movement, which at that point had found little sympathy in the courts and had achieved few legislative successes.
Now, despite the likelihood that a new, conservative Supreme Court will soon overturn Roe vs. Wade, the movement still clings to its hostility to family planning efforts.
But that position is putting it increasingly at odds with other interest groups and with public opinion. Americans are acutely aware that the economy is changing, that workers here are threatened by the large numbers of people in poor countries who are willing to work for lower wages. Moreover, environmental groups are stressing the connection between burgeoning populations and global environmental problems like the destruction of the rain forest or the widening holes in the ozone layer.
A recent poll conducted by the Gordon S. Black Corporation for the private, non-profit Population Crisis Committee found that more than 90 percent of Americans think that poverty and other social problems will get worse if the population of developing countries continues to grow rapidly, and that these countries will increasingly rely on U.S. famine relief and other aid.
More than 85 percent believe that the world's environmental problems will worsen and that more illegal immigrants will enter the U.S. if world population growth is not slowed. Three-quarters of those surveyed fear that more domestic jobs will leave for poor countries with rapidly growing populations.
Those figures indicate increasing recognition of the link between population and environmental issues -- and an awareness that what happens in other parts of the world inevitably affects this country as well.
The poll also found some evidence that these issues are beginning to influence voter preferences, with 43 percent of those expressing an opinion saying they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who opposed U.S. aid for family planning.
The irony -- tragedy, really -- of the Reagan-Bush policy on family planning is that providing contraceptives to couples who want to limit the size of their families, or to improve their children's chances of survival by spacing them at least two years apart, actually reduces the number of abortions around the world -- especially the illegal abortions that take the lives of many poor women.
That's an angle that throws a different light on the shouting matches that have characterized most of the abortion debates in this country.