Welfare bill eyed to gain abortions paid by state

March 23, 1994|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,Sun Staff Writer

Abortion rights advocates in the state Senate are poised to renew their battle to allow poor women to terminate pregnancies at state expense.

As a vehicle, they plan to use the controversial welfare reform bill, a major element in Gov. William Donald Schaefer's final legislative package.

In the process, some lawmakers said, they run the risk of killing the entire welfare measure, an ambitious melange of inducements and sanctions designed to foster self-reliance in recipients and cut costs to the state.

They also face the possibility of triggering a potentially immobilizing filibuster as legislators move into the closing weeks of the annual General Assembly session, which concludes at midnight April 11.

The scheme, as it has unfolded over the past several days, calls for amending the governor's welfare bill when it hits the Senate floor this week. The governor's bill would, in part, deny higher payments to welfare recipients who have more children. The amendment would lift the state's restrictions on Medicaid-funded abortions.

Under current law, state Medicaid money can be spent for abortions only in limited circumstances. They include when the woman is a victim of rape or incest or her physical or mental health is in danger. The restrictions have come under periodic attack for years.

Abortion rights advocates say the administration bill provides a near-perfect vehicle for their efforts in that it would deny welfare payments for additional children without providing funds to abort unwanted pregnancies.

"I believe it is the ability to lift the restrictions [on Medicaid abortions] that makes the welfare reform bill palatable," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat in the vanguard of the abortion rights forces.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat and longtime abortion rights supporter, said she would propose the amendment to eliminate the restrictions.

Abortion rights advocates and administration officials were lobbying senators furiously yesterday, though at times the legislative maneuverings seemed to catch all sides off guard.

"This is really like a three-dimensional chess game," said one lobbyist, who declined to be quoted by name. Said Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly, a Prince George's Democrat, "This bill is being lobbied like you wouldn't believe."

Administration efforts yesterday were aimed at salvaging the welfare bill in the midst of a highly fluid situation. In addition to the cap on family size, the measure would cut welfare payments to some recipients after 18 months unless they got a job or did community service work.

"The most important thing to us is that the bill pass," said Daryl C. Plevy, deputy secretary of the Department of Human Resources. As for the move to relax abortion restrictions, Ms. Plevy said, "At this point, we don't have a position on the Medicaid funding issue."

But a new element was thrown into the mix late yesterday when the governor's press secretary, Page W. Boinest, hinted strongly that Mr. Schaefer -- who has resisted eliminating Medicaid restrictions in the past -- would sign the measure.

"He would be inclined to heed the legislature's sentiment on this issue," Ms. Boinest said.

Sen. James C. Simpson, a Southern Maryland Democrat who chaired the subcommittee that helped shape the welfare bill, saw a rocky road ahead if abortion funding is added.

"I hope it doesn't get to that point," he said. "If it does, the whole bill is going to be in jeopardy. . . . All hell is going to break loose."

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