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  Abortion Bill Moves Ahead in Md. Senate

By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 1999; Page B01

A sharply divided Maryland Senate gave preliminary approval yesterday to a ban on the rare late-term procedure opponents call "partial birth" abortion.

The Senate's action marked the first time either house of the state's General Assembly has approved any kind of restrictions on abortion since voters upheld a woman's right to the procedure in a 1992 statewide referendum. The bill passed by a narrow margin, 25 to 22.

Pending final approval, the bill goes to the House of Delegates, where it has the support of Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany). Yet its chances of passing remain murky, and the outcome may not be clear until the final days of the legislative session, lawmakers said.

Even then, it faces a likely veto by Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), who has said he could support the prohibition only if it includes an exemption allowing the procedure to be performed to protect a woman's health. The version passed by the Senate does not include such an exception.

But the bill's progress thus far has energized both its supporters and opponents, who consider it to be a crucial turning point for a state that has typically championed abortion rights.

Patricia Kelly, associate director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, which supports the ban, called it proof "that to many voters, the abortion issue does matter," noting last fall's election of three additional conservative senators.

Traci Siegel, the Maryland director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, responded that the vote "should sound a wake-up call to pro-choice Marylanders."

It is unknown how many such late-term abortions occur -- physicians in Maryland are not required to report that information -- though both sides of the debate concede that cases are rare.

Still, the procedure has become perhaps the key battleground in the abortion debate in recent years. Antiabortion activists paint a gruesome picture of the procedure -- a living fetus is partially delivered in the mother's vaginal canal and the skull is crushed to complete removal -- that has persuaded some abortion rights advocates to call for its ban.

Congress has twice passed a ban on the procedure, but President Clinton vetoed it both times. Twenty-five states also have passed bans, but many have since been overturned or tied up in court. Virginia, which passed similar legislation last year, is one of only seven states with a ban currently in effect.

The Maryland bill was sponsored by Sen. Larry E. Haines (R-Carroll), who also led unsuccessful attempts to promote a similar ban over the past three years.

He called the procedure a "heinous and barbaric act" that is akin to "infanticide."

Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore) argued passionately from the Senate floor against the ban. She said it was a "constitutionally vague" bill that threatened to conflict with the statewide voters decision in 1992 that granted wide discretion to women seeking abortions.

She also complained about an amendment to the bill -- intended to appease abortion rights advocates -- would limit the ban to procedures performed after the 16th week of pregnancy. Kelley warned that it would "criminalize" paramedics who try to assist a woman having a miscarriage, since they may have no idea how advanced her pregnancy was.

But Haines dismissed the complaints. That type of abortion is never medically necessary, he argued. And he noted that the 1992 referendum took place long before most voters were aware of the procedure.

"If we knew about partial-birth abortion in winter of 1991, our abortion rights law would look very different today," he said.

In the House, observers on both sides of the issue say that new membership makes it difficult to predict how the bill would fare on the floor, or if it would even be approved by the Environmental Matters Committee, which oversees health issues.

Taylor has called the procedure "clearly unconscionable." But he called the issue "a conscience vote" and said he would not try to influence other members.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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