'Partial Birth' Ban Set to Pass in Md.
By Daniel LeDuc
Maryland lawmakers appear ready to pass the first restrictions on abortion since voters overwhelming affirmed women's access to abortions in a statewide referendum in 1992.
After three years of trying to ban the late-term procedure opponents call "partial birth" abortion, key lawmakers said it appears a prohibition will pass the state Senate during this legislative session and stands a good chance of passing in the House of Delegates.
"Its time has come," said Sen. Larry E. Haines (R-Carroll), who has sponsored the ban for the past three years and has seen it die each time. He said the procedure borders on "infanticide."
Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) has said he would sign the bill only if it contains an exception to protect the health of the woman – something Haines said he would not agree to.
Abortion rights advocates are working harder than ever to oppose Haines's proposal, which will be heard in a Senate committee today. They argue it is too vague and would result in much broader restrictions on abortion than he says it would.
They said it is similar to a Wisconsin law passed last year that resulted in a temporary statewide halt on abortions because doctors worried they could be prosecuted for performing any abortion.
Traci Siegel, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, said the real intent of the bill was to ban as many abortions as possible. "They're trying to ban a wider swath of abortions" she said.
"We think the bill as drafted would limit abortions at every stage of pregnancy," said Robin F. Shaivitz, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington. "They describe a procedure that could be used at any time in a pregnancy."
It is difficult to know just how widely the procedure is used. Both sides of the debate acknowledge a dearth of national statistics, and in Maryland there is no requirement for physicians to report the number of abortions they perform except to obtain Medicaid reimbursement. Voluntary reporting showed that there were 11,671 abortions in 1996; however, it is unknown how many involved the partial-birth procedure.
Maryland Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe has written a letter advising senators that in its current form, the bill "could in fact operate to interfere with abortion decisions that are now protected."
With its history of liberal statewide politics, Maryland has had a long tradition of protecting abortion rights. In 1990, lawmakers passed a law granting wide discretion to women seeking abortions, and two years later, voters overwhelming affirmed the law in a statewide referendum.
But much has changed since then.
Nationally, some abortion rights activists say they have lost the public relations battle on partial-birth abortions. Antiabortion groups have painted the procedure in gruesome terms: The fetus is partially delivered in the mother's vaginal canal and its skull is crushed, they say. The description has led some abortion rights supporters to endorse a ban on the procedure.
In recent years, 25 states including Virginia have passed bans similar to the one being contemplated in Maryland. Seven state bans are in effect, and the rest are tied up in the courts. Twice, Congress has passed a similar proposal and President Clinton has vetoed it.
Still, abortion opponents are hopeful now in Maryland because two key abortion rights senators lost their elections last fall. One was Minority Leader F. Vernon Boozer, a Republican from Baltimore County, who was among the leading abortion rights advocates in the General Assembly.
Last year, Haines's partial-birth abortion ban was approved in committee, then Boozer led an effort on the Senate floor that sent the bill back to committee in a procedural maneuver that effectively killed it for the year. But Haines sought revenge and was instrumental in helping Andrew P. Harris defeat Boozer in the GOP primary.
Harris, an obstetric anesthesiologist, opposes abortion and is backing Haines's bill.
"If you talk to the average person, the average person knows where the line is, and this is over the line," said Harris, the Senate's only physician. Joining the forces supporting Haines's proposal is the powerful Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's). He has supported abortion rights in the past, but last year he supported the ban and said he will vote for it again this year.
"I have six grandchildren under 2 and a seventh grandchild due in April. I can't imagine that procedure being used in the third trimester," he said. "I believe in a woman's right to choose, but not in the third trimester." There is no mention of the third trimester in the bill, but Haines said the procedure is used only in that trimester – something abortion rights supporters dispute.
Abortion rights activists also are concerned because while the bill makes an exception for the life of the woman, there is no exception for the health of the woman or the fetus, as is the case in current law for abortions to be performed after the fetus reaches viability.
"Health is something better left determined by a woman in consultation with her doctor," said Planned Parenthood's Shaivitz.
But abortion opponents say that the health exception is a loophole that allows too much discretion.
"Health is so broad – it allows an abortion at any time in a pregnancy," said Patricia Kelly, associate director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, which is supporting Haines's bill.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company