Town commissioner pushes anti-abortion clause

Mardela Springs man seeks to provoke thought, but others are nervous

March 21, 2000|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

MARDELA SPRINGS -- Commissioner Anthony Severn knows some of his neighbors are angry about the right-to-life proclamation he's planning to introduce at tonight's town commission meeting.

He doesn't think little Mardela Springs can end the national debate on abortion, but if a little publicity gets people thinking, he figures it's worth a few ruffled feathers on Main Street.

"A little town like ours certainly has no authority to affect a Supreme Court decision," Severn said. "But if we had avoided everything divisive, we'd still be a British colony, black people would still be slaves, people would still be dying in Vietnam."

Even if it passes, which seems unlikely, the measure will have no legal weight. The document simply states that life begins at the moment of conception, not at birth.

But a lot of folks in Mardela Springs, population 362, wish the proclamation would just go away.

"I don't know why he did this, but I don't want to talk about it," said commission President Wallace Catlin. "We don't need this publicity."

Everybody remembers the Wicomico County town's last brief stint in the media spotlight eight years ago when a town commissioner casually referred to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as "Buckwheat's birthday," a snide reference to the black child actor who starred in the "Our Gang" movies of the 1930s and 1940s.

In the town, which has only a handful of black residents, the remark prompted protests by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and coverage in national magazines such as Newsweek and Jet, as well as by local and regional media.

Severn remembers the controversy well; the comment was made during his first meeting as a member of the five-person commission.

He knows some of his neighbors are angry about the proclamation he's planning to introduce.

Severn, a 52-year-old Vietnam veteran who owns a Salisbury shipyard, settled in Mardela Springs almost 20 years ago. His unofficial poll among residents makes it a three-way split among the pro-abortion rights, anti-abortion and no-opinion camps. Still, even among those who share his anti-abortion views, many wonder what this has to do with Mardela Springs.

Straddling busy U.S. 50 about 12 miles west of Salisbury, the town is mostly a collection of big frame houses. There are three churches, a Little League ball field adjacent to the cinder block town hall, a town park with a boat ramp alongside the brackish Barren Creek.

There's a bank on Main Street, but the last general store is boarded up, and all the business goes to two convenience stores out on the highway.

At Maryland Right to Life, spokesman David Lam said he knows of no similar effort in the state except a 1973 resolution approved by the St. Mary's County commissioners.

Roberta Giedner Antoniotti, who heads Planned Parenthood of Maryland, said small-town government is no place for the abortion debate. This issue, she said, was decided in 1992 when more than 60 percent of state voters approved Question 6, affirming a woman's right to choose.

Severn, who has four children and three grandchildren, said he thinks he has accomplished part of his goal, just talking to his neighbors about the proclamation.

"I know this is difficult; there's hardly a family anywhere that hasn't dealt with abortion one way or another," Severn said. "I'm not just one nut case out here. I'm trying to get people to think."

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