Confusing the Abortion Issue

September 13, 1992

Some much-needed truth in advertising: The coalition opposing the abortion law on Maryland's Nov. 3 ballot is trying to confuse voters by billing the issue as a referendum on women's rights and safety, on the right of parents to know when a teen-age daughter seeks an abortion and on the regulation of medical practices and practitioners. That's just not true. The question voters must decide is whether abortion early in pregnancy will remain legal in Maryland regardless of future Supreme Court decisions -- or whether abortion could again become a criminal act.

The coalition's strategy makes sense. When voters are uncertain about a ballot question, they tend to vote no. Last year in Washington, a strong pro-choice state, an effort to confuse the issues erased a solid lead for a similar measure and came within a hair of defeating it. That could happen here unless Maryland voters look beyond the sound bites and slogans they will hear in the coming weeks.

The measure passed by the General Assembly and petitioned to referendum would replace a 1968 law that legalized some abortions in an era when abortion was treated as a crime in most states. That law was rendered moot by the Supreme Court's Roe Wade decision in 1973. For two decades, Marylanders have become accustomed to legal abortions, under certain circumstances, without the restrictions mandated in 1968.

The ballot measure essentially enshrines the status quo. But the measure is a compromise -- and that is important for voters to know. Opposition literature alleges that the bill would allow minors to seek abortion without parental notification. Not so. The measure would establish a notification provision, an enforceable requirement the state doesn't have now. That's why some supporters of abortion rights are unhappy with the measure; it is, after all, a compromise.

Opponents are also complaining that the bill does away with informed consent for women seeking abortions, eliminates state regulation of facilities where abortions are performed and does away with state regulation of physicians who perform them. That is simply wrong. Individual laws do not exist in a vacuum, but rather become part of the larger body of law. Existing medical standards and malpractice provisions found elsewhere in the Maryland Code require informed consent for medical procedures and cover abortions and abortion facilities, just as they cover other medical practices.

What's at stake in this referendum is not a woman's right to know about the development of a fetus or the risks of abortion and alternatives to it. What is at risk is the right to have access to a legal and medically safe abortion if a woman is not able to carry a pregnancy to term.

Voters who do know the issues and who do not want the government to tell a woman she must bear a child should vote yes in November.

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