Lieutenant governor to join abortion foes in Annapolis march

Steele's decision breaks with Ehrlich stance, leaves rights advocates uneasy

March 03, 2003|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Sending a signal he will not waver on his deeply held beliefs, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele will break from the new Republican administration's stance on abortion tonight by joining the annual Annapolis March for Life rally.

Steele's participation in the event is energizing members of Maryland's anti-abortion community, who say it is the first time in recent memory that a statewide elected official has actively embraced their cause.

"It is an encouragement to the pro-life folks to see a newly elected official standing up for life," said David Lam, executive director of Maryland Right to Life, a sponsor of tonight's event.

But with several abortion-related bills before the General Assembly this year, Steele is causing unease among abortion-rights supporters.

They fear that he could lobby Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - who ran as an abortion-rights candidate - and other legislators on the issue.

"It's one thing to march; it's another thing to lobby," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat and longtime abortion-rights supporter.

In an interview over the weekend, Steele sought to play down his decision to participate in the march and said he has no plans to become an advocate for the anti-abortion movement.

"This is just another constituency group that has come to Annapolis," he said. "I have never been one who's been on the forefront of advocating. Even though I have a pro-life view, I believe in silent persuasion."

But the march occurs the same week as a House of Delegates hearing on legislation seeking to toughen the state's parental notification law.

The bill would prohibit doctors from waiving the state's current parental notification law. A minor seeking an abortion would instead have to go before a judge to get a court order if she didn't want to tell her parents.

Abortion could also surface as an issue during budget debates because the legislature traditionally battles over public funding of abortions for the poor.

Abortion opponents said they have not asked Steele to lobby on their behalf but would be encouraged if he did.

"We are not asking him to do that and there is no expectation for him to do that, but we would be thrilled if he could," said Nancy Fortier, an associate director of the Maryland Catholic Conference.

Steele said the administration has yet to develop a position on the parental notification legislation. "To the extent this becomes an issue, [the governor] and I will talk, and we will decide what, if any, positions he wants to take," Steele said.

But even Steele's acknowledgement that he plans to discuss abortion with the governor concerns abortion-rights supporters.

"It is hard for us to know if Governor Ehrlich would be swayed by the lieutenant governor's extreme views," said Diana Onken, Maryland regional organizer for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

Steele, a devout Catholic who briefly studied to become a priest in the early 1980s, has such firm beliefs on abortion that he said in the campaign that he opposes it even in cases of rape or incest.

Over the weekend, he said abortion in cases of rape or incest should be looked at on a "case-by-case" basis. But he added that any exceptions are "a slippery slope if you believe in the sanctity of life."

Ehrlich said he is comfortable with Steele's position. The governor said it will not affect the administration's official stance on the issue.

"That is Mike's position and that has been his position from Day One," Ehrlich said. "I speak for the administration, but Mike is heard."

Ehrlich says he generally favors abortion rights but is opposed to public funding of abortions and late-term abortions. But he has also said he does not intend to actively seek any changes to Maryland's laws.

While they agree on most issues, Steele's religious convictions also have prompted him to dissent with Ehrlich's pro-death penalty stance. In January, Steele - who opposes the death penalty - publicly called for a study on whether capital punishment is fairly applied.

This is not the first time a Maryland governor and lieutenant governor have disagreed on a hot-button issue. Abortion was one reason for the public split between Gov. Harry R. Hughes and his first lieutenant governor, Samuel W. Bogley.

As it is for many politicians, the abortion debate is a delicate situation for Ehrlich.

He was elected in part by winning the votes of a fair number of crossover Democrats, many of whom favor abortion rights. But he also owes his victory to a large turnout of conservative voters from more rural parts of the state, many of whom oppose abortion.

Matthew A. Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University, believes that in the short term Ehrlich could benefit by having a lieutenant governor who is strongly opposed to abortion.

With the legalization of slot machines as Ehrlich's top priority this year - a stance strongly opposed by much of the state's religious community - Steele's decision to march alongside the anti-abortion advocates helps the governor keep his conservative base happy, Crenson said.

"That allows them to span a fairly broad spectrum of the electorate, from moderate to right-wing Marylanders," Crenson said.

But Daniel M. Clements, chairman of Planned Parenthood of Maryland, said Steele's position "ought to rub off on the governor" if he seeks re-election.

"The administration can't speak with two voices," he said. "The voters will remember if the governor says `I am pro-choice' but allows his lieutenant governor to be a vocal and strong voice against choice."

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