Judge orders ballot rewrite on abortion Proposal's foes claim victory, but appeal looms

August 13, 1992|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS — A graphic in The Sun yesterday omitted a phrase from the text proposed by the Maryland attorney general for the abortion question on the November ballot. Here is the correct language, with the omitted phrase bold-faced:

"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."

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

ANNAPOLIS -- In a decision seen as a victory for abortion opponents, an Anne Arundel County judge ordered the Maryland attorney general yesterday to come up with new wording for a hotly contested abortion referendum question on this fall's ballot.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Circuit Judge Bruce C. Williams' ruling, which is expected to be reviewed next week by the Maryland Court of Appeals, granted a motion for summary judgment to the Vote kNOw Coalition of Maryland, Inc., which is campaigning to defeat the law.

The group argued that Attorney General J. Joseph Curran's proposed wording of the question inaccurately reflects the state statute being voted on -- a 1991 law that affirmed a woman's right to an abortion.

Judge Williams agreed, saying many of the law's provisions have such far-reaching effects and are so controversial that the question should spell them out in more specific terms. He cited as an example the wording on parental notification.

"It seems to imply that there is a requirement of parental notification in the case of a minor, but under the law, notification isn't required in every case," he said.

"I'm very excited. I think it's a victory because it means the judge agrees that the question is misleading," said Ellen Curro, president and executive director of Vote kNOw.

Ms. Curro said the group would have accepted Mr. Curran's earlier version of the question, which began by saying that the law "specifies that a physician need not notify an unmarried minor's parent or guardian about her abortion decision if the minor is mature and capable."

She said, "We feel the voters should be fully informed of exactly what that law does."

But abortion rights advocates said the most recent wording was worked out as a compromise and was widely seen as a reasonably accurate reflection of the essence of the 1991 law.

"You can't expect radical extremists to accept a compromise. They want to confuse the voters because if they're confused, they'll vote against the law," said Karyn Strickler, executive director of the Maryland affiliate of the National Abortion Rights Action League.

"The question summarizes the nature of the law and the tone of the law, which is an effort to keep the state out of what is a woman's most personal decision," said Stacie Spector, campaign manager of Maryland FOR Choice.

Deputy Attorney General Ralph S. Tyler took the case to the Court of Appeals immediately after Judge Williams announced his decision. The state's highest court is expected to hear the case as early as next Tuesday.

Under Maryland law, the referendum wording must be delivered to the state Board of Elections by Aug. 25. Election Day is Nov. 3.

The decision is another salvo in a battle between antagonists locked for years in a bitter struggle over whether and when a woman should be allowed to have an abortion.

When the General Assembly enacted Senate Bill 162 in February 1991, it was widely seen as a way to reaffirm the right to an abortion established by the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision.

But last summer, anti-abortion forces gathered 143,000 signatures on a petition seeking to have that statute overturned at the polls.

When Mr. Curran came out with proposed ballot language July 13, anti-abortion groups were outraged, saying the wording was a reversal of an earlier version and was construed to win voter approval.

In an hourlong hearing yesterday, Mr. Tyler disagreed. He told Judge Williams that the ballot language accurately reflected the "central core" of the year-old statute, within the 100-word limit imposed on such questions.

"The core question, and the question on which the voters will have to decide, is whether or not Maryland statutory law should guarantee a woman's right to have an abortion before the fetus is viable," he told the court.

But Joseph A. Schwartz III, attorney for the coalition, called the wording "inaccurate, misleading and obtuse." He argued that it fails to alertvoters to key provisions of the law regarding parental consent for minors and restrictions on for-profit abortion referrals.

He said the result was a ballot question that fails to meet state requirements for accurately reflecting the issue being decided.

"Simply put, the ball must not be hidden," Mr. Schwartz wrote in his memo requesting the order. "But unfortunately somewhere in the preparation of the ballot title . . . the ball was not only hidden, it was lost."

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