Safety or something else?

Our view: Abortion rights opponents are using safety concerns to attack women's reproductive options and rewrite Maryland law

January 10, 2011

Nearly two decades ago, members of the Maryland General Assembly approved a law clarifying a woman's right to an abortion. It permits late-term abortions to save the life or health of the mother or when the fetus is seriously abnormal or deformed.

This action was not taken lightly — or without considerable debate and public scrutiny. Lawmakers were concerned that this basic right to choose might be denied women if the Supreme Court ever overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

Ultimately, Maryland voters were asked in 1992 to decide the matter when the bill was petitioned to referendum by abortion rights opponents. The outcome? Overwhelming approval, with more than 60 percent of ballots cast in favor of the law.

Has public opinion changed since then? If anything, Maryland's political landscape has only gotten more progressive on social issues, with the Senate on the cusp of approving gay marriage this year.

That reality should guide the legislature if, as expected, opponents mount an attack on abortion rights in the upcoming session. Their rallying cry will be the recent case of a New Jersey doctor who illegally provided abortions in an Elkton clinic.

The controversial physician, Steven C. Brigham, was ordered to cease and desist when the practice came to light. The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is also considering new regulations to ensure that what the doctor did — initiate abortions in New Jersey and then have patients drive to Maryland to finish the procedures — is not repeated.

Such rulemaking is entirely appropriate, but revisiting the parameters of the 1991 law is not. Abortion rights opponents are clearly hoping to go much further and force onerous restrictions on abortion providers — requiring doctor's offices where abortions are performed routinely to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers, for instance — that are not justified and would drive up the cost of the procedure and promote illegal back-alley alternatives.

Late-term abortion providers are often vilified by abortion rights opponents. Dr. LeRoy H. Carhart, by all accounts a legitimate and licensed provider of late-term abortions who recently moved from Nebraska to open an office in Montgomery County, has drawn protestors who claim Maryland is in danger of becoming a "late-term abortion capital of America."

But whether Dr. Carhart operates a practice in Germantown or elsewhere is irrelevant. Maryland law allows for abortion until a fetus is viable outside the womb — with the aforementioned exceptions. That hasn't changed, nor should it.

What happened in Elkton appears to be an anomaly, and appropriate action was taken to stop it. Are there legitimate safety concerns raised by this incident? If there are (and it's unclear as of now whether that is the case), they can be addressed by departmental regulations as provided for under existing law, and not by the legislature, where consideration of virtually anything related to abortion is hampered by the ideological passions it raises.

Late-term abortion is an issue on which the people of Maryland have spoken, and lawmakers should abide by their judgment. Better to direct their energies to a goal everyone can agree on: Keep abortion safe, legal and rare through education and access to birth control.

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