With the new Republican governor providing a backdrop of cautious optimism, about 30 anti-abortion legislators met yesterday in Annapolis to discuss what abortion-related bills they will propose this session.
Although those who attended described the meeting largely as a brainstorming session, the lawmakers did agree on some guidelines: They won't push for anything too controversial and instead will concentrate on one or two anti-abortion measures they believe are supported by most Marylanders.
Those include tightening loopholes in parental-notification laws for minors seeking abortions and possibly a bill banning late-term abortions. They might also try to remove public funding of abortion in certain cases through a floor amendment to the state budget.
All are ideas that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. either voted for as a legislator or has said he supports - providing a starting point for Maryland's anti-abortion lobby.
However, the measures have failed for years in the General Assembly, which has been predominantly in support of abortion rights.
"In the last several years, anti- abortion legislation, which has majority support among voters, has ended up in the bottom drawer of a committee chairman's desk, not having been given a fair chance," said Richard J. Dowling of the Maryland Catholic Conference. "Now, thanks to the last election, there's a significantly changed legislature, and a significantly changed leadership."
Ehrlich, though, most certainly helps their cause. "The difference that exists now is that before we knew from the start that the previous governor would have vetoed any pro-life legislation," said Del. George W. Owings, a Calvert County Democrat. "It's our understanding that [Ehrlich] is at least open to dealing in this arena."
During the campaign, Ehrlich described himself as pro-choice and said he would not seek to change Maryland's abortion laws.
But that doesn't mean he wouldn't sign abortion bills if the legislature passed them. Ehrlich disagrees with the state law allowing Medicaid to pay for abortions when a continued pregnancy could seriously threaten a woman's mental health. He has consistently voted to ban late-term abortions, and has voted for parental notification (but not parental consent).
Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver would not comment on hypothetical abortion legislation yesterday.
"Abortion is not on the table, nor is it on his legislative agenda," she said. "His legislative priority is the budget. He's been very clear about that."
Abortion is a tricky subject for Ehrlich, who was elected thanks to crossover Democratic voters, many of whom are anti-abortion. That support could quickly drop off if Ehrlich is seen as less moderate than he advertised.
Some anti-abortion legislators who attended the meeting, organized by the Maryland Catholic Conference and the Family Protection Lobby, say they are sensitive to that tension.
"We're optimistic but we're also dedicated to making Bob Ehrlich look good and supporting him, and none of us wants to do anything to embarrass him," said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican.
For any bill to reach the governor, anti-abortion lawmakers will have to find agreement on how to proceed.
Owings and Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican, for instance, believe pushing a late-term-abortion bill this session is unwise since its constitutionality is still being debated federally.
But Del. Carmen Amedori, a Carroll County Republican, said yesterday someone would propose such a ban. "We thought it was something we should do," she said. She and Jacobs, she added, will probably sponsor parental-notification legislation.
Such bills may feel like a compromise to staunch anti-abortion lawmakers, particularly in light of a recent report showing that the number and rate of abortions in Maryland has increased since 1996.
Even so, anti-abortion legislators say they are willing to hold back for the sake of success. "My sense is that we have to go slow and be smart," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Calvert County Republican.
The group plans to meet again next week.
Capital News Service contributed to this article.