The signs bobbing above the crowd in Hopkins Plaza yesterday read: "I Am The Face Of Pro-Choice America" and "Republicans For Choice" and "Against Abortion? Don't Have One."
Where noontime strollers usually wander looking for lunch, Maryland's abortion-rights activists were registering voters, signing volunteers and launching their campaign to win approval in November of a new state law that would keep most abortions legal here.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Pennsylvania law that limits abortions. To capitalize on the interest in that ruling, Maryland for Choice weeks ago scheduled a rally to mark the official start of the referendum drive.
While the abortion-rights backers in downtown Baltimore were touting their determination to win in November, activists on the other side of the debate were spending the day more quietly.
"I'm sure we will be having rallies, but we don't have one scheduled now," said Frederica Mathewes-Green, spokeswoman for the Vote kNOw Coalition, which opposes the new Maryland law. The court's ruling, she said, "is not a big change for us. It's status quo. So we're not planning anything right now."
Meanwhile, in Hopkins Plaza, abortion-rights forces were telling the audience there was not a campaign minute to waste.
The crowd, estimated by city police at about 400, stood to listen to Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke say: "Now is the time to educate. Now is the time to organize. . . . Women must retain the rights to their bodies and their privacy. There can be no turning back."
Ann Stone, head of Republicans for Choice, came from Washington to tell the listeners that the abortion issue doesn't depend on whether you're a Democrat or Republican, a liberal or a conservative. "It is an issue between those who trust women and those who do not," she said.
And Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg added: "This is not a question of being pro-abortion or against abortion. This is not a question of being for life or against life. This is a question of whether government should intervene or dictate a course of action in an issue that is solely between a women and her conscience."
Many in the audience cheered. But along the sidelines stood some downtown workers who had stopped by just to watch. One of those, dressed in a business suit, was Michael O'Hara -- and after listening for a time, he couldn't contain himself.
"What about the Constitution?" he shouted as Mr. Steinberg spoke. "What about the Constitution?"
"I'm obviously a pro-lifer," he explained later. "The Constitution is supposed to protect the rights of all citizens, and it protects the rights of the unborn."
Michael Stein, standing nearby and wearing a Maryland for Choice badge, spun around to confront Mr. O'Hara. "Where? Where does it say in the Constitution that the unborn are protected?" Mr. Stein demanded.
The two debated for a few minutes, neither changing the other's mind. As the rally ended, they drifted amicably apart.
From the walkway over the plaza hung an array of blue-and-whiteabortion-rights banners -- and two small red signs held by a man who wouldn't give his name. "Stop Killing Babies," one of his signs read. "Stop Abortion Now," said the other.
"I'm for women, because half of the aborted fetuses are women," said the protester. And what about the arguments that the speakers had raised about protecting freedom and privacy? "What about slavery?" he countered. "The unborn babies, they're like slaves. They're killing them."
As he finished speaking, a woman wearing an abortion-rights badge, approached a reporter. "I'm appalled you're spending any time with this one man," she said. "There are hundreds of pro-choice people here, and you spend time with him. I'm just appalled."