The Maryland House of Delegates tonight voted 69 to 66 to continue the existing state policies on Medicaid-funded abortions for indigent women, thus dealing a setback to a well-organized right-to-life lobby that was attempting to make the abortion law more restrictive.
The House vote followed a frenetic two days of lobbying by politicians and organizations on both sides of the issue. Gov. Harry R. Hughes and members of his staff, asked undecided delegates to retain the abortion guide-lines enacted last year, and Rita Bogley, the wife of Lt. Gov. Samuel W. Bogley, spent the day telling legislators that the law "amounted to murder."
After the vote on the key amendment, antiabortion delegates introduced a series of alternative amendments aimed at narrowing the language of the present law, but the proabortion sentiment established by the first vote prevailed throughout the night.
The guidelines upheld by the House vote allow for state-funded abortions for poor women when the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother, the pregnancy would have a detrimental effect on the health of the woman or when the woman is a victim of rape or incest that has been reported to a law enforcement or social agency.
According to state figures, more than 5,800 Maryland women received Medicaid funds to pay for abortions that met those guidelines last year, a 10 percent drop from the year before when there were no guidelines.
The pro-life lobby, arguing that the guidelines were far too broad, drafted more restrictive legislation that would allow for state-funded abortions only when the life of the mother is endangered or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest that has been reported to police.
The elimination of the clause that allows for abortion funding when the abortion is "detrimental to the health of the woman," would cut the number of Medicaid abortions in Maryland to about 190 a year. "That clause was the giant loophole in the law," said George Yourishin, the executive director of the Maryland Right to Life Action, the leading antiabortion group.
Yourishin and other leaders of the antiabortion lobby said they expected the House to defeat their more restrictive measure, but still hope that the Senate will later revive it. "Last year the House was on our side and the Senate wasn't," said Yourishin. "This year it seems to be the other way around."
The Senate antiabortion measures are expected to meet their first test in the Budget and Taxation Committee next week.
Del. Lorraine Sheehan (D-Prince George's), the floor leader of the movement to retain the current abortion-funding guidelines, argued during tonight's debate that the question was not so much abortion as social justice.
"Seventy-five percent of the abortions in this state are paid for by individuals or insurance companies," said Sheehan. "We can't ask the poor to adhere to a different standard. That is the key to this question."
Sheehan was repeating the argument offered earlier in the day by Gov. Hughes at his weekly press conference. While defending his position on abortion funding, Hughes lashed out in uncharacteristically harsh terms at pro-life delegates who had accused him the day before of attempting to lure legislators to his side by offering jobs and appointments.
In an article in The Washington Post this morning, antiabortion Del. Timothy Maloney (D-Prince George's) charged that Hughes' patronage secretary, Louise Keelty, was "trading jobs for votes" yesterday while lobbying in the House office building.
"That statement runs contrary to everything I've stood for, everything I've said in the campaign and everything we're doing in this administration," Hughes said this morning. "We are not twisting arms, we are not selling jobs. That statement is totally false and given the benefit of the doubt I would say it was probably made out of a very strong emotional feeling rather than a deliberate statement."
Maloney apologized to Hughes today, but still maintained that Keelty's lobbying in the House "left the impression that delegates who went with the administration could expect favorable treatment."
Maloney and Del. Frank Pesci, another Prince George's Democrat, were the prime strategists for the antiabortion forces in the House and spent the day developing a series of contingency plans in case their opponents won the first vote. They entered the House chambers tonight with a complicated chart outlining who would propose what amendments. Their strategy fell apart when they lost the first and most important vote.
With every amendment the antiabortion forces offered, they came away with fewer votes on their side.
The House position tonight was in sharp contrast to the manner in which the abortion measures were treated in the House Appropriations Committee two weeks ago. By a 13-to-8 vote, that committee approved the more restrictive wording pushed by the pro-life organizations.
As the House deliberated on the emotional issue tonight, the visitor galleries were jammed with pro-life and pro-choice activists who came to the State House today by the busloads. One of the observers was Rita Bogley, who said in an earlier interview that her husband was "tormented" by his campaign pledge to Hughes that he would not contradict the governor's position.
Rita Bogley, now pregnant with her seventh child, charged that her husband was "under duress and extreme pressure" from his running-mate, Hughes, when he made that agreement last September. She also claimed that the Hughes-Bogley team won the primary because of support from pro-life organizations.
"We had people in every corner of the state, in every church, working for them," said Mrs. Bogley. "We got them elected. And now this..."
As today's vote clearly demonstrated, the antiabortion organizations were unsuccessful in their attempts to elect a legislature that supported their single-issue cause. The prochoice groups -- including Planned Parenthood and the Maryland chapter of the National Organization for Women -- launched an equally intense lobbying effort and, for today at least, prevailed.
Most members of the House of Delegates had made up their minds on the issue long before the vote, but for those few who had remained undecided the final hours were difficult. Joan Pitkin, a freshman delegate from Bowie, said she was so upset by the choice she had to make that she would not talk about it. Pitkin eventually supported the pro-life position.