In Maryland, referendum looms large Nov. vote to settle issue, both sides say

June 30, 1992|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer Staff writers Jay Merwin, William F. Zorzi Jr., Melody Simmons, Frank D. Roylance, Jonathan Bor, C. Fraser Smith and Marina Sarris contributed to this article.

Maryland abortion practices remain unchanged in the wake of the latest Supreme Court ruling, the attorney general said yesterday. A 1968 law that would outlaw most abortions here -- a law not enforced since the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision -- is still deemed unconstitutional.

The resurrection of the 1968 statute was the greatest fear of Maryland's abortion-rights supporters -- and the fondest hope of abortion opponents.

But after several hours of study, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said yesterday that the old law is not revived by the Supreme Court's ruling in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey.

Doctors may continue to perform abortions here just as they did yesterday. Women in the first months of pregnancy may seek abortions without governmental restrictions.

And now, with the Supreme Court ruling behind them, abortion opponents and abortion-rights supporters say they will devote themselves to the November referendum on a new law that would keep most abortions here legal -- no matter what the court eventually decides.

Both sides said yesterday that they believe the Supreme Court's decision will help their cause.

"This was the ultimate scare," said James Guest, head oPlanned Parenthood of Maryland. "Next time it could be the real thing. Women's rights are in our hands in the upcoming vote."

"This is a wake-up call for the pro-choice voter," said Maura Keefe, spokeswoman for Maryland for Choice, which is leading the campaign to pass the new law.

Steve Shaneman, of the Family Protection Lobby, said hwelcomes the ruling. "This gives us the opportunity to focus on what this referendum is all about. This referendum is not about abortion. This referendum is about a bad law."

And Roger Stenson, executive director of Maryland Right to Life, said the court ruling will help defeat the new law, because it points up how "radical, extreme" the statute is. "It's embarrassing to be in Maryland right now," he said.

The law that goes before the voters in November was approved by the General Assembly in February 1991 after battles in two contentious sessions. It never took effect, blocked by an anti-abortion petition drive that put it on November's ballot for approval by all voters.

Designed to preserve Maryland's current abortion practices, which have been observed since 1973, the new law would allow abortion without government interference until the time in pregnancy that a doctor decides the fetus might be able to survive outside the woman. Later in pregnancy, abortion would be allowed only to preserve a woman's life or health, or if the fetus is deformed. And the new law has another important feature: It would repeal the only other abortion statute on the state's books, the 1968 law.

That law, considered liberal when it was passed, provided for abortions only in hospitals after approval by a review board and only to save the life or health of the woman, if the fetus was grossly deformed or if the pregnancy was the result of a reported rape.

Since that time, the state has imposed limits on Medicaid funding. Abortions for poor women are available only if a woman's life is threatened, if she is a victim of rape or incest, if the fetus is deformed, or if there is a risk to a woman's present and future health, including mental health.

In upholding the Pennsylvania restrictions on abortions there, the court said that states may limit abortion but may not impose any "undue burden" on the woman seeking an abortion.

Mr. Curran said that the 1968 law "does place 'a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion . . .' and therefore remains unconstitutional and unenforceable."

"I would say the attorney general's opinion is probably accurate," said Frederica Mathewes-Green, spokeswoman for the Vote kNOw Coalition of Maryland, which is leading the campaign to defeat the new law.

The battle was already under way yesterday as abortion-rights activists held a fund-raiser at the Center Club. More than 30 people paid $250 each for crab cakes and fruit salad to benefit Maryland for Choice and to hear Sen. Bill Bradley, the New Jersey Democrat.

"This is the state where the battle is going to be joined," Mr. Bradley told the group. "There are national implications."

Religious groups split in their reactions to the court ruling.

Archbishop William H. Keeler of the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore went to the neonatal ward of Mercy Medical Center "to show the high value we attach to the gift of life.

"On this occasion I extend again, in the name of Villa Louise, ouCrisis Pregnancy Centers, Catholic Charities and our local parishes, an invitation to each woman considering abortion to avail herself of the resources we have tm assist her and her child."

Villa Louise is an archdiocesan project to provide education and training in parenthood to teen-age mothers.

The Baltimore Jewish Council, the political and community relations agency for Jewish organizations around greater Baltimore, condemned the ruling as government interference.

"To the extent that this decision furthers government intrusion into women's lives, then that decision generally concerns us and is contrary to the position of the council," said Art Abramson, the council's executive director.

The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance has no position o abortion because of the diversity of opinion among its members.

"Our ministry to women in this predicament must be support" nmatter how they decide the outcome of a pregnancy, said the alliance president, the Rev. William C. Calhoun Sr., pastor of Trinity Baptist Church on Druid Hill Avenue. "Whichever way they go, they still need ministry."

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