A temporary court ban on the use of state Medicaid funds for nontherapeutic abortions in Maryland was lifted today, freezing thousands of dollars a week for poor women seeking public assistance and reversing a short-lived victory for anti-abortion forces.
Anne Arundel Circuit Court Judge Morris Turk dissolved the ban after a four-hour hearing, concluding that three Marylanders opposed to public financing of abortions failed to show the need for a temporary freeze on state funds for elective abortions.
The action, reversing a decision made by a different judge three days ago, will restart the flow of Medicaid funds in the state, according to Deputy Attorney General George A. Wilson. The State Health Department had withheld $3.8 million in Medicaid payments to hospitals and doctors for following the original ruling while auditors sought to segregate the $34,000 that had been earmarked that week for abortion services.
Medicaid funds for nontherapeutic abortions for indigent women also are available to residents of Virginia and the District of Columbia, although the Virginia State Board of Health voted Wednesday to discontinue making the funds available unless a woman's life is endangered. Any fund cutoff in Virginia was delayed pending a final decision on the issue by Gov. Mills E. Godwin.
In Maryland on Monday, Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Bruce C. Williams imposed a 10-day injunction on the use of state funds for elective abortions after the three Maryland residents filed suit contending that continued funding would cause "irreparable harm."
William's order was appealed by Maryland officials who asked that the ban be lifted to free funds for needy women.
The intense controversy? spawned by Williams' decree was evident by the large turnout at today's hearing and a bitter shouting match that broke out between spectators while Judge Turk was pondering his decision in his chambers.
While the representative of an abortion clinic was recalling how one of her patients had to sell her furnishings this week to pay for an abortion that would have been covered by Medicaid, she was called "just a baby killer out for money."
"You call abortion genocide of blacks," interjected Robert Cheeks, director of Welfare Rights Organization, who favors public financing of abortion for the poor. "If that baby lives and he isn't wanted, that's quality of life genocide."
Within Turk's hearing room, the arguments were technical and the testimony restricted to the need for the temporary injunction, which Williams imposed "ex parte," or outside the presence of the Maryland officials named in the court suit.
The three Marylanders who brought the suit testified, each explaining that he or she objected to use of tax money to pay for abortions. None could estimate how much of the tax dollar was absorbed by Medicaid payments for abortions.
Turk decided to lift the 10-day ban without requiring the state to present its case because the judge said, none of the witnesses were able to show that continued state funding of abortions would cause them "irreparable harm."
Such an extraordinary judicial move as an "ex parte" injunction. Turk explained, could only be justified by evidence that the plaintiffs would be "irreparably harmed" by continuing the flow of Medicaid funds for elective abortions.
While dissolving the temporary ban, Turk did not rule on the plaintiffs' request for a permanent halt to the public policy of funding abortions for the poor. That requests will be heard separately Jan. 5.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs would not disclose whether they plan to appeal Turk's decision. Two plaintiffs, Dr. Daniel J. Boyle of Silver Spring, and Marilyn Szewezyk, of Baltimore County, refused comment The third, Lola Alice Kindley, of Silver Spring, could not be reached.
Maryland's Health Secretary Dr. Neil Solomon applauded Turks decision, saying William's decree had created a "chaotic situation for both health providers and Medicaid recipients." He said Medicaid funds for abortion would resume immediately.
State financing of abortions for the poor has become intensely controversial in Maryland and elsewhere since the federal government stopped its contributions in August. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states need not use their Medicaid money for that purpose.
In the 12 months ending last June 30, Maryland spent $1.4 million paying for abortions for poor women. Most of that money was provided by the federal government, a contribution the state now plans to make up on its own.
Early this month, Maryland's Attorney General said the state lacked the legal authority to pay for elective abortions and would have to stop the practice unless Solomon drafted new regulations outlining how the money would be used.