Abortion ruling awaited anxiously by both sides in Maryland

June 24, 1992|By Sandy Banisky and Lyle Denniston | Sandy Banisky and Lyle Denniston,Staff Writers

At Planned Parenthood of Maryland, the staff is on standby -- though it isn't sure exactly what for.

At Maryland Right to Life, officials are scheduling a news conference -- though they have no idea what they'll be reacting to.

At Maryland for Choice, they're planning a rally -- though no one can be sure of the date.

Any day now, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in the biggest abortion case of the term, a decision that tests whether the court is willing to overturn the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which guaranteed the right to abortion.

And in the offices of interest groups on both sides of the issue -- around the country and around Maryland -- people are preparing in the dark for an historic ruling they can only guess at.

The court is expected to act on a Pennsylvania abortion law, and at least two more "decision days" are scheduled before the summer recess -- today and Friday. Another decision day might be set for Monday, though that seems unlikely.

The Pennsylvania law does not ban abortions; it adds restrictions --such as requiring a woman to tell her husband before having an abortion, and requiring clinics to wait 24 hours after scheduling an abortion to perform the procedure.

But if the court says Pennsylvania can add such limits, it may signal other states to vote restrictions that could not have withstood court challenges a few years ago.

Meanwhile, groups devoted to the fight are set to scrutinize any Supreme Court ruling in the case and then prepare for the political fallout.

In Washington, the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy has scheduled a news conference for the afternoon of the court's ruling. In Chicago, Americans United for Life plans a news conference for the day the Pennsylvania case is decided.

In Baltimore, Maryland Right to Life and Concerned Women for America will meet reporters. On the day after the decision, Maryland for Choice will hold a rally to kick off its campaign for a new Maryland abortion law on the November ballot.

The justices have a wide range of options for dealing with the abortion case, one being a simple postponement of decision until next term.

The court well knows that a postponement would ignite a searing new political controversy, with accusations that a majority had put off the case to take the issue out of this year's political campaign to help President Bush -- a nearly unthinkable gesture for a court of law.

No matter which option the court chooses, the decision is expected to make a significant difference to the law of abortion as it now stands.

The options for a final ruling include these:

* A flat overruling of Roe vs. Wade, the basic 1973 ruling, thus leaving the issue up to state legislatures and Congress. Most legal experts doubt that there is a majority of five justices to do that.

* A broad ruling striking down most of the clauses in the Pennsylvania anti-abortion law -- an option so lacking in support as to be considered out of the question.

* A major new definition of abortion rights, with the remaining right extremely narrow in scope, giving the states wide leeway to regulate the conditions for abortions, and to ban abortion under some circumstances.

* A split ruling, upholding most if not all parts of the Pennsylvania law, but with no majority of the justices supporting a common line of constitutional reasoning.

In Maryland, a new abortion law, which would keep most abortions legal here despite Supreme Court action, will be on the November ballot. The only other abortion law on Maryland's books is a 1968 statute that allows abortions in hospitals after approval by a review board and only if the woman's life or health are at risk, the fetus is deformed or the pregnancy is the result of a reported rape.

That law, considered extremely liberal in 1968, was rendered unconstitutional by the Roe decision in 1973 and has not been enforced since. If the Supreme Court overturns or severely cuts back on the Roe ruling, that 1968 law could be resurrected -- at least until the November referendum.

At the Howard Street offices of Planned Parenthood of Maryland, staff members have been trying to prepare for any possible ruling from Washington. Planned Parenthood lawyers are standing by to review any court opinion and project its effect on clinic operations here. Counselors, used to discussing medical options, will have to be ready to answer questions on legal issues as well.

"We do expect to have extra people on the phones," said Linda Geeson, a Planned Parenthood spokeswoman. "Our receptionists will have lists of information to give people," including which nearby states will continue to offer legal abortions.

The mood is quieter at the Vote Know Coalition of Maryland, which is leading the campaign against the new abortion law. Even if the court should overturn the right to abortion, staff members there don't expect any celebrating, said Frederica Mathewes-Green, a spokeswoman.

"There will be weeping and wailing from the other side," she said. We'll be talking about weaving women into the fabric of post-abortion America."

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