Senate passes abortion limit

Governor has vowed to veto restriction on late-term procedure

March 27, 1999|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Senate voted yesterday to ban a late-term abortion procedure, the first time either chamber of the General Assembly has approved a major abortion restriction since the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision.

The 25-22 vote sends the measure to the House, where another close vote is expected if the issue reaches the floor.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has pledged to veto the legislation because it does not include an exception to allow the procedure -- termed "partial-birth abortion" by opponents -- to protect a mother's health.

The Senate fell four votes shy of the three-fifths majority necessary to override a veto, meaning the bill is probably doomed. The vote was nonetheless a victory for religious conservatives in a state where seven years ago voters overwhelmingly approved a law ensuring broad protections for abortion rights.

A coalition of Republicans and Roman Catholic Democrats helped carry the bill in the Senate. Several argued that the measure had broad public support, even from some who favor abortion rights.

"This is not about pro-life or pro-choice," said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican who voted for the ban. "This is about a medical procedure that should be outlawed."

Abortion-rights advocates argued that the ban is an unconstitutional infringement on a woman's right to choose and could limit other forms of abortion. Courts have struck down all or part of similar bans in 18 states. Virginia is the only state where such a ban has survived a legal challenge.

"I don't want to play God. I don't want to make anybody's decision for them," Sen. Clarence W. Blount, a Baltimore Democrat, told his colleagues yesterday in opposing the bill. "The woman is the key person in this. It should be her decision. It's her body."

Banning the procedure has been the focus of a national movement for several years. Bans have twice passed Congress but been vetoed by President Clinton.

During the procedure, a fetus is partially delivered, then the skull is collapsed to allow it to be removed.

Those who defend the late-term procedure say doctors use it rarely and only when the fetus is so large that other methods of abortion are not suitable or pose a risk to the mother.

The Maryland legislation, sponsored by Carroll County Republican Sen. Larry E. Haines, would prohibit the procedure after 16 weeks of gestation unless necessary to save the mother's life.

The legislation would make it a criminal offense for anyone to perform such a procedure, punishable by a fine of $1,000, imprisonment of up to two years or both.

The General Assembly last passed an abortion law in 1991, when it approved abortion-rights protections modeled after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1973 decision.

The Senate grew more conservative in last year's elections after the chamber defeated Haines' proposed ban during the last session.

Two moderate Republicans and one Democrat who opposed the ban were ousted by conservative Republicans who campaigned on the issue and who helped pass the bill yesterday.

Opponents of the ban argue that it would be unconstitutional for several reasons. They say it is so vaguely worded that it could restrict other methods of abortion and that it would restrict abortions before the fetus is viable.

Supporters, including House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., say the ban would not interfere with a woman's right to choose.

"My one vote is very, very solidly opposed to the partial-birth procedure, which I believe has nothing to do with the legal right to an abortion," Taylor said yesterday.

Pub Date: 3/27/99

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