Activists on both sides of the abortion debate know what is at stake in the November referendum on Maryland's abortion law. So does anyone else in the state who has paid the least bit of attention to the issue during the past couple of years.
Those who don't know what the shouting is about aren't likely to be enlightened by what they read in the voting booth in November. There simply isn't room on the ballot for a thorough explanation of the question and its implications.
Essentially, the abortion law passed by the General Assembly in February, 1991, and petitioned to referendum by its opponents, would continue the status quo in Maryland. Women would continue to have access to abortion until the fetus has a reasonable chance of surviving on its own. Beyond that point, abortions may be performed only if the pregnancy threatened a woman's life or health, or if the fetus were deformed. A 1968 law, overridden by Roe vs. Wade in 1973, would also be repealed. That law was considered liberal at the time of its passage, but it contained provisions far more restrictive than permitted by the Roe decision, such as requiring the approval of a review board.
The question in November would seem to be simple -- should current practices be continued? But in the abortion wars, there is no such thing as a simple question. So it comes as no surprise that the wording on the ballot has turned into an issue in the referendum. Complaints from opponents of the law prompted Attorney General J. Joseph Curran to rewrite the initial wording. Then the revised version, longer and more descriptive, drew complaints from supporters of the law who felt it obscured the main thrust of the measure.
Now Mr. Curran has sent a third version to Secretary of State Winfield M. Kelly Jr., who holds final authority over the wording. But the new version has drawn complaints from opponents because it fails to reflect what they consider shortcomings in the law. Mr. Curran disagrees, but he is urging Mr. Kelly to certify the language as soon as possible so any court challenges can be resolved before ballots must be printed.
All this may sound like quibbling -- and that's exactly what it is. The abortion referendum is a high-stakes game in which each side is jockeying for every advantage it can get. And no wonder -- once Marylanders cast their votes, we will be as close as we can get to a democratic solution to a highly divisive social issue.
The central question facing Marylanders this November is whether abortion should remain legal. In our view, the attorney general has provided a fair description of the law. Now it is up to each side to take its case to the people.