War of Words

August 17, 1992

After two draft versions and ample opportunity for public comment, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. produced a ballot description of the abortion law Marylanders will vote on in November that is as fair and accurate as a 100-word summary could be. It begins, logically enough, by addressing the main thrust of the legislation. In this case, that means informing voters that the law in question largely continues the status quo on abortion by restricting state interference in the decision.

Abortion opponents, who successfully petitioned the law to referendum, prefer a description that begins with the issue of parental notification, and now Circuit Court Judge Bruce C. Williams has agreed with them. The issue goes to the Court of Appeals on Tuesday, where speedy action is expected in order to meet an Aug. 25 deadline for ballot preparation.

The argument with the wording is based on the fact that the parental notification provision of the law appears first in the legislation as it was written and passed by the General Assembly. Yet legislation is written for the convenience of legislators, not voters, and provisions are traditionally listed in the order in which they are already addressed in the Maryland Code. For an issue as volatile and controversial as abortion, the voters who actually depend on the ballot description to help them decide the issue will undoubtedly be a small minority. Even so, if the critical factor in their decision is this summary, it should address the main point of the law, not simply follow legislative custom.

Behind this war of words is the sense among opponents that they can attract more votes if the emphasis is placed on the law's exceptions for parental notification requirements than if it is first described as a way of restricting state interference in private reproductive choices.

The attorney general's wording is a fair and reasonable summary of the abortion law, and we hope the Court of Appeals agrees. Then the two sides can take their cases to the people, where they will not be restricted to 100 words on a crowded ballot.

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