The debate over state funding for abortions, for two years the source of much public rhetoric and even more private political discomfort among Maryland legislators, reopened today with anti-abortionists arguing strenuously for tighter restrictions on such funding.
At a Senate committee hearing today, about 40 men and women wearing red and white "Vote Pro-Life" tags on their lapels and addresses, arrayed themselves opposite a like number of spectators wearing blue-and-yellow "Choice" buttons.
Before them, in a semicircle, 13 senators had convened to consider the issue that has set the two groups apart since 1977 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could refuse to fund abortions.
Last year, in what was seen as a compromise, the legislature restricted state-funded abortions ot cases when the life of the mother was endangered by a full-term pregnancy, when the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest or when two physicians determined that the continued pregnancy was detrimental to the health of the mother.
The antiabortionists, or "Pro-lifers," found last year's restrictions unsatisfactory. They said that proabortionists had found so many loopholes in the restrictions that the number of Medicaid abortions declined by only about 10 percent in the past year -- from an estimated 6,500 in 1977 to 5,800 in 1978.
"The 'detrimental to the health of the mother' clause became an escape hatch for abortion," said State Sen. John J. Garrity, an antiabortionist Democrat from Prince George's County. "It allowed too much discretion on the part of the doctors and resulted in many nontherapeutic abortions. They could find any number of reasons why the pregnancy would be 'detrimental.'"
As a result, Garrity and another antiabortionist senator from Prince George's, Edward T. Conroy, drafted two bills this year to further restrict the use of state funds for Medicaid abortions for the poor. Conroy's bill would allow state-funded abortions only when the life of the mother was endangered. Garrity's, which he said was another compromise, merely would tighten the wording of last year's restrictions.
Most of the antiabortionist groups in the state have said they prefer Conroy's measure. The proabortionists reject both bills. The legislature itself appears about as equally divided as were the two groups at today's hearing.
"I'd say it's a very close question." said Conroy. "We might have a little more support than we had last year, at least in the Senate. But it's going to be difficult just getting our bills out of committee with favorable reports."
The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, which considered the bills at today's hearing, is chaired by Sen. Laurence Levitan, a Montgomery County Democrat who opposed last year's antiabortion measures and then won reelection despite a concerted effort by the Maryland Right to Life Action group to oust him from office.
Another committee member, John J. Bishop Jr. (R-Baltimore County), also survived the antiabortion group's "hit list," and at least five other members of the committee are on record in support of state-funded abortions.
The proabortion position also is held by Maryland's new governor, Harry Roe Hughes, and his health and mental hygiene secretary, Charles Buck Jr., who spoke in opposition today to the Conroy and Garrity bills.
"If these bills passed, the legislature would be guilty of economic discrimination," said Buck. "In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that abortion is a legal medical practice. The question is whether the poor -- those on Medicaid -- deserve the same opportunity as those who can afford to pay for their own abortions. I have a special obligation to see that the same services remain available to the poor and the disadvantaged."
Buck said he was speaking for the Hughes administration. He was not speaking, however, for Rita B. Bogley, the wife of Lt. Gov. Samuel W. Bogley. Mrs. Bogley was at the hearing as a member of th pro-life delegation, but did not testify, she said, "because there are others here who are more eloquent."
Sen. Garrity was perhaps the most eloquent of the antiabortionists on this day. He related the story of his own birth, during which his mother died."If I had the decision to make then, my mother would have lived," said Garrity. "I am not above providing state funds for abortions to save the life of the mother. Bit it's a matter of deep-rooted conscience with me. I do not want my tax funds used to kill an unborn child. An unborn child, poor or rich, deserves the opportunity to live."