3 gubernatorial hopefuls would lift abortion limits CAMPAIGN 1994 -- THE RACE FOR GOVERNOR

August 14, 1994|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,Sun Staff Writer

Three of the four major Democratic candidates for governor, including front-runner Parris N. Glendening, say they would lift current restrictions on taxpayer-funded abortions for poor women if elected to the state's highest office.

Mr. Glendening, the Prince George's County executive, State Sen. Mary H. Boergers of Montgomery County and Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg all pledged last week to remove the limitations on the use of state Medicaid funds to end unwanted pregnancies -- a long-standing goal of abortion rights advocates.

The three Republican hopefuls, along with the fourth Democratic aspirant, State Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski of Baltimore, said they would not attempt to change the current policy, which dates back about a dozen years.

The candidates were responding to questions from The Sun.

Medicaid is the national health care program for the poor and disabled, with most services jointly funded by the state and federal governments.

But the use of federal Medicaid funds for abortion has been sharply limited over the years. Most states now cover abortion only in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is in danger.

Maryland has a more liberal policy. The state also pays for abortions if a woman can demonstrate that continuing the pregnancy would seriously threaten her mental or physical health. But if a qualifying condition cannot be documented, the state will not pay.

Twelve states have no restrictions, and Medicaid money can be used to pay for any otherwise legal abortion.

Maryland's restrictions are contained in the state budget, prepared by the governor and enacted by the General Assembly during its annual 90-day legislative session. During his eight years in office, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has continued the practice of placing the restraints in the budget.

The next governor can move to scrap the restrictions by submitting a budget that does not include the current rules. The change would become law unless overturned by a majority of lawmakers.

Gloria A. Totten, executive director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League's Maryland chapter, said Medicaid funding was the "bottom-line issue" for her organization this year.

"We intend to bring this issue up next session," she said. "It will save us a lot of trouble if one of the Democrats who supports lifting the restrictions is elected. Then we'd just have to work to block [a vote by the legislature] to put them back in, which we're certain we can do."

The Maryland chapter plans to endorse a Democrat for governor after the Sept. 13 primary election, assuming the party's standard bearer is one of the three candidates who supports stripping the restrictions from the budget, Ms. Totten said.

"We anticipate it will be Glendening, Steinberg or Boergers," she said. "If American Joe wins the primary, we won't make an endorsement, we'll stay out of the race."

The Maryland Catholic Conference declined comment on the stances of the three Democratic candidates. Roger Stenson, executive director of Maryland Right to Life, said, "We just wish these people would stop trying to use our money to kill people's babies."

The Democrats backing the abortion rights position are unequivocal about their intentions on the Medicaid funding issue.

"Parris would seek to guarantee that all women in Maryland have the right to choose abortion regardless of income," said David Seldin, Mr. Glendening's spokesman. "The first budget that he submits will contain no restrictions on Medicaid funding of abortions."

Said Ms. Boergers, "As governor, I will submit a budget without any restrictions on Medicaid funding for abortions . . . to give poor women the exact same rights and options that middle class and wealthy women have. It will eliminate the double standard and hypocrisy."

Mr. Steinberg's spokesman, M. Hirsh Goldberg, said, "Mickey has opposed discrimination in every form and restricting access to abortions for indigent women is a form of health care discrimination. . . . He would remove the restrictions because he believes it's a form of discrimination."

The state paid for 3,230 Medicaid abortions in fiscal year 1992, the last year for which figures are available. Officials estimate the state would pay for an additional 1,600 abortions if the restrictions were lifted.

But budget analysts said during the legislative session that lifting the restrictions would not increase costs and could actually save the state money -- an estimated $2.5 million this year if efforts to change the law had succeeded.

They pegged that prediction in part to the lower cost of abortion vs. childbirth expenses routinely covered by Medicaid.

On a related matter, all seven major candidates -- even those associated with anti-abortion forces -- say they have no plans to try to reverse the state law that gives women in Maryland who can pay their own way virtually unlimited access to abortions.

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