Maryland's attorney general sent his final version of the abortion question to the secretary of state yesterday for inclusion on the November ballot, but anti-abortion leaders said they're not happy with the wording and will continue their efforts to have it changed.
"We're disappointed," said Frederica Mathewes-Green, spokeswoman for the Vote kNOw Coalition, which is campaigning against the abortion-rights law that is up for referendum this fall.
Ms. Mathewes-Green said she dislikes the wording because it fails to reflect what she believes is a major shortcoming of the law, that it "ignores the health and safety of women."
On the other side of the issue, Stacie Spector, campaign director of Maryland for Choice, said the latest version of the ballot question is "a better compromise" than earlier drafts.
"It's impossible for the ballot question to be completely satisfactory for both sides," Ms. Spector said. But the proposal sent to the secretary of state "definitely strikes a balance between the legal requirements of ballot language and the need of voters to understand the question."
The issue on the November ballot is a law that would allow abortion without government interference until the time in pregnancy when a doctor says the fetus might be able to live outside the woman. Later in pregnancy, abortion would be allowed only if the woman's health or life is at risk or the fetus is grossly deformed. The law was passed by the General Assembly in 1991 but was blocked from taking effect when its opponents petitioned it to referendum.
Groups on both side of the debate consider the wording of the ballot question crucial. In the tight space allowed on the voting machine, every word, every clause is considered important -- perhaps helpful to the cause and perhaps harmful.
Mindful of the concern, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. twice sought comments from interested groups and twice rewrote the draft language.
When the Vote kNOw Coalition protested that the first draft was too brief and listed the provisions of the new law out of order, the attorney general's office produced a second draft. That version began as the law did, with a reference to notifying parents when a minor wants an abortion.
But abortion-rights backers disliked that version, saying it made it difficult for voters to figure out that the law's main purpose is to keep abortion available in the first months of pregnancy.
Jack Schwartz, a chief counsel in the attorney general's office, said yesterday that "the risk of confusion over what the main point of the bill is became a concern to us."
As a result, the final version begins with a reference to stopping "State interference" with a woman's decision.
"Any fair-minded person would agree -- whether you're for it or not -- what the purpose of the law is," Mr. Schwartz said.
The ultimate protest over the revised wording would be a court suit, but Ms. Mathewes-Green said members of her group "really haven't talked about that." Instead she said the group will approach Secretary of State Winfield M. Kelly Jr. "The authority over the final wording rests with the secretary of state," Ms. Mathewes-Green said. "So we'll take our concerns there."
In a letter to Mr. Kelly, Mr. Curran advised that the ballot language "is legally sufficient and is an accurate statement of the core elements of the referred bill."
He also suggested that Mr. Kelly certify the language as soon as possible. He pointed out the deadline for the final ballot wording is Aug. 17 and that time might be needed to resolve any court challenge.
How law will appear on ballot
Revises Maryland's abortion law to prohibit state interference with woman's abortion decision before fetus is viable, or, under certain conditions, at any time and to provide certain exceptions to the requirement that a physician notify an unmarried minor's parent or guardian prior to minor's abortion; repeals pre-abortion information requirements about abortion alternatives; repeals some, and clarifies other, provisions related to abortion referral; requires that abortions be performed by licensed physicians; provides good-faith immunity under certain conditions to physicians performing abortions; authorizes state to adopt abortion regulations; repeals certain penalty and disciplinary provisions related to the performance of abortions.