Abortion bill killed by House

Late-term procedure would have been banned by measure

Emotional debate

Vote is 70-68

prohibition was approved by Senate

April 10, 1999|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

The House of Delegates killed legislation yesterday that would have banned a late-term abortion procedure. The vote followed an emotional and often personal debate on whether the measure would infringe on women's constitutional rights.

The narrow 70-68 outcome came as a disappointment to anti-abortion advocates, who hoped to pass what would have been the first major abortion restriction in Maryland since the 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling.

The vote came as a relief to abortion-rights supporters, who saw the Senate pass the prohibition last month and viewed the vote yesterday as an important precedent for future proposals to limit access to abortion.

"It sets the precedent for the remainder of this legislative term," said Kathleen Nieberding-Ryan, a lobbyist for the Maryland National Organization for Women. "Any other attempt to chip away at Maryland's abortion law will face a tough battle in the House of Delegates."

Backers of the legislation agreed yesterday that the vote was a defining one for the House. But they argued that the issue was about ending what they call a gruesome practice, not limiting abortion rights.

"This bill will not stop abortions," said Del. Thomas E. Dewberry, a Baltimore County Democrat. "What this bill does prohibit is this particular procedure."

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

During the procedure, a fetus is partially delivered, then the skull is collapsed to ease its removal. Defenders 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 have prohibited the procedure after 16 weeks of gestation unless necessary to save the mother's life. Violation of the ban would have been a criminal offense punishable by a fine of $1,000, imprisonment of up to two years, or both.

Opponents of the ban argued that it would be unconstitutional for several reasons. They said it was so vaguely worded that it could have restricted other methods of abortion and would have restricted abortions before the fetus is viable.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening promised to veto the bill, arguing that it was unconstitutional because it did not include an exception to protect the mother's health.

`Crosses the line'

Social conservatives tried to rally support for the ban by arguing that some abortion rights supporters favor outlawing the practice.

Dewberry said the majority of Marylanders "believe, as I do, that it is horrific, that it is grotesque, and clearly crosses the line between abortion and infanticide."

The most personal speech came from Del. Sue Hecht, a Frederick Democrat who spoke to a hushed House floor about a friend's abortion that led to sterility, and about making her own choice when she was pregnant almost 30 years ago.

"My own personal choice was to continue that pregnancy, but hundreds of thousands of women make their own desperate choices for private reasons," Hecht said. "This bill will move us back to the days of limited choices and limited safe procedures."

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 Roe vs. Wade decision.

`Good statement'

The Senate's 25-22 vote for the prohibition marked the first time either chamber had voted to change the 1991 abortion law.

Glendening hailed the House's decision to kill the ban.

"I think it's a good statement of policy," Glendening said. "I feel proud of the people who stood up and had the courage to lead that debate."

Pub Date: 4/10/99

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