Abortion-Law Referendum: an Old Fight in a New Arena

October 18, 1992|By SANDY BANISKY

Feb. 18, 1991, just 35 minutes after it had been passed, Gov. William Donald Schaefer signed into law a bill meant to keep most abortions in Maryland legal. At last, some thought; the end of a long, contentious fight. But others knew: The passage of the new abortion law wasn't the end of anything. The governor's signature just kicked off a whole new contest.

Even before the governor signed, even before the votes in the legislature were counted, opponents of abortion vowed they would not give up. They would petition the new law to referendum. They would take their case to the voters of Maryland.

In the summer of 1991, when they needed 33,373 signatures to block the new law from taking effect and put it on the ballot, opponents of the new law delivered 142,992 signatures to state officials.

And so the campaign began. On Election Day next month, Question 6 will be at the end of the Maryland ballot. The abortion law that the legislature wrangled over in 1990 (when an eight-day-long filibuster paralyzed the legislature) and again in 1991 now is up for its last vote.

The ballot language doesn't help the voter much. A hundred words long, it was written and rewritten three times by the attorney general in an effort to summarize the law in a neutral manner, without favoring either side. A court fight, mounted by abortion opponents, was won by the attorney general. (For text of ballot question, see page 4H.)

The result is carefully crafted ballot language that even voters educated on the issue say they have trouble understanding. The confusion, both sides believe, leaves the job of educating the voter up to the campaign groups.

The law up for referendum is intended to protect the right to abortion in Maryland even if the U. S. Supreme Court overturns its Roe vs. Wade ruling, which in 1973 found a constitutional protection for the right to have an abortion.

The law would allow abortion without government interference until the time in pregnancy when the fetus might survive outside the womb. Later in pregnancy, abortion would be allowed only to save the life or health of the woman or if the fetus were deformed.

The law also would require a doctor to notify a parent before a minor has an abortion unless the doctor concludes that telling a parent would not be in the girl's best interest; that notification might lead to emotional or physical abuse; or that the girl was mature enough to make her own decision.

And the law repeals the only other abortion law on Maryland's books: a 1968 law that has been unconstitutional since the 1973 Roe decision. The 1968 law required that abortions be performed only in hospitals and only after approval by a hospital review board. It allowed the procedure only if the pregnancy resulted from a reported rape, if the woman's mental or physical health was in danger or if the fetus was deformed.

That law could be resurrected if Question 6 is defeated and the Supreme Court overturns Roe.

Maryland for Choice, leading the fight for the law's approval, says that Question 6 must win to preserve the right to legal abortions in Maryland should the Supreme Court reverse Roe.

The Vote kNOw Coalition, leading the campaign against Question 6, says it must be voted down because the law is a bad one that won't adequately protect women's health and would allow minors to have abortions without their parents' knowledge.

Maryland for Choice charges the opponents with spreading disinformation in an effort to confuse and scare voters. Vote kNOw alleges that abortion-rights activists are exaggerating the effect of the law's defeat.

Maryland for Choice says the law is a moderate compromise. Vote kNOw says it's extremist.

Television and radio commercials -- plentiful for the last month and due to multiply over the next two weeks -- have repeated the themes. "Privacy, safety, choice," the Maryland for Choice ads say. "Make them get it right," say Vote kNOw's.

The cost of all this politicking is yet to be tallied. Before the campaign began, each side predicted it would have to spend at least $1 million, with expensive television time critical to victory. A Vote kNOw videotaped appeal for funds says the group needs $3 million to win.

And even after the vote, even after Marylanders approve or reject Question 6, do not expect the fight to be over. The issue of abortion, people on both sides believe, will not go away soon.

Sandy Banisky is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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