Abortion questions raised in campaign

Ehrlich wouldn't oppose funding, while Townsend declares strong support

Issues 2002

August 18, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Despite his long-standing opposition to public funding of abortions, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. says that as governor, he would not seek to change the Maryland law that allows tax dollars to pay for thousands of abortions for poor women.

In an interview with The Sun, Ehrlich acknowledged the state statute runs counter to his own beliefs. His philosophy is that to fund abortion is to encourage it, and he doesn't think government should play that role.

But Ehrlich, who supports some abortion rights, says he wouldn't tamper with the state's approach, under which 3,324 women received Medicaid-funded abortions in 2001.

Most qualified under language - considered too liberal by Ehrlich - permitting funding in cases where a continued pregnancy could seriously threaten the woman's mental health.

"I would say it's a fairly liberal Medicaid statute - the language is pretty wide open," said Ehrlich, a fourth-term congressman from Baltimore County. "But it's a compromise struck by respective sides over the years, and I'll respect that compromise."

Ehrlich's Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, is a staunch abortion-rights supporter - she scored 100 percent in one advocacy group's survey - and says she can use the issue to her advantage in the election.

"People in Maryland need to be clear about this," she said. "There is a clear distinction between my opponent and me."

Townsend said she has no problem squaring her abortion position with being Catholic. "The great thing about this country is that my faith tells me what I should do for me, but also that we should respect what other people's faith tells them," she said.

The candidates' abortion positions are important in a state that has been generally supportive of safeguarding the procedure.

In 1992, Maryland voters passed a ballot referendum intended to keep most abortions legal in the state even if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling of 1973. Fifty-eight percent of Marylanders consider themselves "pro-choice," according to a poll conducted in July for The Sun.

Ehrlich conceded that the state Medicaid statute would place him in a delicate position, based on his views.

In 1998, he voted in the House of Representatives to restrict the District of Columbia from spending public money on abortions for the poor. "To the extent you subsidize behavior, you tend to see more of it. And I don't think either side wants more abortions," Ehrlich said.

But he said the best course would be to leave Maryland's policy alone, even though "it's further than I would go."

His critics on the abortion issue said they remain concerned, mostly because of his history. "His action and his votes in Congress speak louder than his rhetoric," said Nancy C. Lineman, executive director of the Maryland affiliate of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, or NARAL, which is backing Townsend.

Ehrlich's votes - he has often been an ally of Planned Parenthood - have also subjected him to criticism on abortion from the other side.

Last year, he sided against many anti-abortion groups by voting to lift a ban on privately funded abortions at overseas military hospitals.

Richard J. Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, was out of town and unavailable for comment. The state political arm of the National Right to Life Committee said it was still involved in the endorsement process and declined to discuss Ehrlich's record.

Ehrlich's supporters are evenly split between Marylanders who identify themselves as "pro-choice" and those who adopt a "pro-life" tag, according to the poll.

Seventy percent of Townsend's supporters favor abortion rights, the poll found.

Townsend wouldn't rule out the possibility of her campaign - or somebody else - using televised campaign ads to depict Ehrlich's abortion record.

"To some, he boasts that he is pro-choice," Townsend said. But based on his votes, she said, Ehrlich "is not for choice for those who are struggling. It's a limited choice, in fact. If a woman is working two jobs and has two children and gets pregnant and can't afford an abortion, he won't help her."

Ehrlich says it is he, not Townsend, who is in the mainstream. He seems proud that his abortion position defies traditional labels.

Asked about the "pro-choice" moniker, he says: "That's a label the press has attached. We vote on abortion in about 15 different ways. I guess the word `independent' would come to mind more."

Ehrlich said he wasn't disheartened not to be endorsed by NARAL, an organization he considers "extreme."

He criticized the group for backing a late-term procedure that critics call "partial-birth abortion" and which he says is not supported by most Marylanders.

Ehrlich is on the advisory board of Republicans for Choice, an abortion-rights group headquartered in suburban Washington.

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