Once again, the abortion debate

March 14, 1995

If new delegates in Annapolis thought they had gotten a good taste of the legislative process, they may want to revise their impressions later this week. The subject under consideration on the House floor tomorrow afternoon and evening is Gov. Parris N. Glendening's budget for fiscal year 1996. But the real focus of the debate falls in his courageous but controversial decision to lift restrictions on funding for Medicaid abortions.

Since 1980, Maryland has allowed Medicaid funds to pay for abortions only in cases where the mother's life or health is seriously threatened, or in cases where pregnancy results from rape or incest or when the fetus is deformed. To his credit, Governor Glendening acknowledges that these restrictions create a double standard. For women with private health insurance, decisions about abortion center on moral issues, not on the ability to pay. For women who depend on Medicaid, the state has decided to take that choice away from them.

The restrictions have produced a decline in the overall number of Medicaid abortions, but an increase in those done in the second trimester of pregnancy, when abortions are more costly and dangerous. That's why lifting Medicaid restrictions is not only good health-care policy, but also makes fiscal sense.

In the eyes of many Marylanders, abortion is a grave moral wrong. But for some women in some circumstances, abortion is the better of bad choices. We believe that making abortion illegal or unavailable would produce even worse choices, regardless of the woman's economic status. If abortion is legal, as it is and should be, its availability should not hinge on a woman's economic status.

In the context of the current political climate, restrictions on abortions for poor women further complicate the mixed messages of welfare reform. Last year, the General Assembly had the courage to reject a glaring inconsistency in then-Governor William Donald Schaefer's welfare reform proposals. He had asked for a "family cap" to deny an increase in benefits to women who had another child after entering the welfare system, but then refused to eliminate the Medicaid restrictions that make it difficult or even impossible for these woman to have an abortion. (It's worth noting that Medicaid-funded health care often lacks adequate access to the contraceptive care and counseling that would make abortions unnecessary.)

Tomorrow's debate will mark the first truly divisive show-down for this new legislature, as well as the first definitive look at how abortion politics might play out in the coming four years. We hope legislators will have the courage to follow the governor's lead and let fairness prevail.

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