Deja Vu on Abortion Referendun

SARA ENGRAM

November 01, 1992|By SARA ENGRAM

Lee Minto lives a continent away, but the news she hears from Maryland these days has an eerie ring. Yogi Berra would call it "deja vu all over again."

A year ago, Ms. Minto was chair of a Washington state coalition working for approval of an abortion law much like the one Marylanders will approve or reject on Tuesday.

Like Maryland, Washington has been considered a strongly pro-choice state, where the majority of voters wouldn't dream of returning to an era in which abortions were severely restricted. Yet despite polls showing solid support for the measure early in the campaign, it barely squeaked by. The outcome was determined only after absentee ballots were counted.

Why the erosion of support? Because voters were told over and over that the measure would remove the requirement that only doctors could perform abortions, that it would allow abortion without limits and that it would remove a woman's protection under malpractice law in case of injury.

Sound familiar? Similar charges have been flying around about Question 6, the abortion law approved by the General Assembly in 1991 and petitioned to referendum. The fact that the charges are, at best, grossly misleading doesn't seem to deter opponents.

Literature prepared for Election Day repeats charges that simply don't hold up to scrutiny -- charges that sound suspiciously like those used in Washington state. Literature from the Vote kNOw Coalition opposing the bill continues to say that under Question 6, "abortion doctors would NOT have to notify parents," that there would be "NO licensing regulation for abortion clinics," and that there would be "NO protection against kickbacks and for-profit referral fees."

Responsible people, including Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., have taken great pains to explain why these charges are wrong and how they distort the law. But that doesn't stop abortion opponents from repeating them. Apparently, they have concluded that this kind of strategy is their best chance of defeating the law.

And why not? It almost worked in Washington, and polls here are showing that the charges are having a similar effect. Over and over, Marylanders who describe themselves as pro-choice express confusion about which side of Question 6 is the pro-choice position. That's exactly the kind of confusion opponents of the law want to plant in voters' minds.

As Ms. Minto said this week, "I can honestly say that virtually nothing [opponents of the initiative] put in their ad campaigns was factual. The whole campaign was put together to cast doubt in the mind of voters."

Her charges are borne out by the fact that, after the election, a citizen complained to the state's Public Disclosure Commission, which is charged with monitoring campaign financing, lobbying and political advertising. The commission agreed that the charges raised by the ads were false.

But if Question 6 is defeated, post-election scrutiny will come too late. Maryland will be back where it seemed to have been stuck so long -- with annual battles over abortion tying up the General Assembly and with increasingly shrill arguments characterizing each side of the debate.

Question 6 would assure that women in Maryland have access to a legal abortion early in pregnancy, but allows restrictions after the fetus becomes viable outside the womb.

It also enables the state health department to institute new regulations for abortion clinics and adds a parental notification requirement for minor girls that will meet constitutional muster.

In other words, Question 6 would actually add some protectionfor women and some restrictions on abortion that do not now exist in Maryland law, while largely retaining the status quo. But you'd never know it from the campaign against the law.

If you don't like Question 6, then think about the law it would replace, the 1968 legislation that was in effect in this state when the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973. For its time, Maryland's law was considered liberal. But its requirement that all abortions be performed in hospitals (at much greater cost than clinics) and only after the approval of a hospital review committee would simply put abortion out of reach for most Maryland women.

Opponents of Question 6 paint the bill as a threat to women's health and safety. Those who believe that should take a moment to remember the lives that are lost when abortion is made a crime.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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