Legislation would ban abortion procedure

Rights advocates call measure `unconstitutional'

February 03, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Reopening a contentious issue that led to the defeat of three moderate lawmakers last fall, abortion opponents are renewing their efforts to ban a controversial late-term abortion procedure in Maryland.

A bill introduced this week by Sen. Larry E. Haines would outlaw what critics call "partial-birth abortion," a procedure that many state legislatures and Congress have sought to ban in recent years.

Abortion-rights advocates say the legislation is unconstitutionally broad and is a veiled attempt to ban all abortions.

Although the General Assembly has defeated similar measures in each of the past two years, Haines has attempted to narrow the language of his bill to appease critics who want to protect a woman's basic right to an abortion.

Legislators said the bill's prospects are unclear in a newly elected Assembly that will take up the issue for the first time. But the two presiding officers support the measure, and lawmakers on both sides of the issue said the bill could win narrow majorities in the Senate and the House.

A spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening said the governor would veto the bill if it were to pass without significant changes.

Haines' proposal, Senate Bill 194, would make it a crime to perform a "partial-birth abortion and kill a human fetus" except in cases necessary to save a mother's life.

The measure defines the procedure as an abortion "in which the individual performing the abortion through a breach presentation delivers a living fetus vaginally before killing the fetus and completing the delivery."

The bill calls for punishment of up to two years in prison and a $1,000 fine for someone who performs the banned procedure.

Haines, a Carroll County Republican, said he added a paragraph stating that the measure "may not be construed to interfere with the decision of a woman to terminate a pregnancy" under Maryland's existing abortion law.

"It means this act would not prohibit any other abortion procedures that are currently permitted or legal in Maryland," he said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said that he had not reviewed the bill but that he supports it in concept. House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said he would support the legislation if assured it would not curtail a woman's basic right to an abortion.

But abortion-rights advocates said the language of the bill is too broadly drawn.

"This bill is blatantly unconstitutional," Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat and a leader among abortion-rights advocates. "The only reason it is out there is to interfere in a woman's right to choose at every stage of pregnancy."

Hollinger said a woman and her doctor should be allowed to decide on the most appropriate abortion procedure. She said the procedure that the bill seeks to ban is used rarely and generally only in the event of medical crisis.

Congress has twice passed similar bills, but President Clinton has vetoed them. Twenty-eight states have enacted similar laws, but courts have blocked their enforcement in 17.

Glendening has said that he would veto such a bill if it did not include an exception to allow the procedure to protect the life or health of the mother.

Ray Feldmann, the governor's spokesman, said Glendening's position has not changed. "Without that language about the health of the mother, the governor's position would be the same," he said.

Haines' bill last year created perhaps the most politically significant roll-call vote of the four-year term. After the measure won approval from a Senate committee, the Senate voted 26-21 to send it back to the committee -- a rare move that, in effect, killed the bill.

Among those voting to "recommit" the bill were three moderate legislators, two Republicans and one Democrat, who said it was drafted too broadly.

All three -- former Sens. F. Vernon Boozer, John W. Derr and Donald C. Fry -- lost in last year's election, thanks in part to their votes on the abortion bill. The three senators who took their places are co-sponsors of this year's legislation.

Pub Date: 2/03/99

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