Pro-abortion supporters today renewed a bitter, two-year-old battle in the General Assembly by voting in a House Subcommittee to ease the requirements poor women must meet to obtain government funded abortions in Maryland.
The new requirements, proposed by Del. John R. Douglas (D-Baltimore City) and passed by a pro-abortion majority on the House Appropriations subcommittee on health and environment, would require Maryland to drop its present restrictions on abortion funding in favor of those temporarily ordered for the federal government last week by the Supreme Court.
The wording of the current federal requirements, drawn up by a New York judge and temporarily upheld by the Supreme Court, allows an abortion if a physcian certifies that it is necessary "in light of all factors." The more restrictive Maryland law, which has been subject of heated disputes in the legislature for the past several years, allows an abortion only if a doctor certifies that a pregnancy could have an adverse effect on the women's health.
The subcommittee's approval of the new requirements for Maryland's Medicaid abortions, which are financed equally by federal and state funds, is not binding on the full appropriations Committee or the House, and could be reversed by either group.
However, the introduction of the new language into the state budget by pro-abortion delegates signaled a reversal of their strategy on the issue this session in light of the Supreme Court decision.
Before the court decision, legislators said today, a concensus had been emerging among leaders of both sides of the abortion issue to leave the current state law untouched this session, rather than repeat last year's intense debate on the wording of restrictions.
But the court's decision persuaded the pro-abortion forces that a new attempt to liberalize the Medicaid funding could succeed. "This year the choice is easy," argued Douglass in the subcommittee meeting. "We are simply changing the state requirements to comply with federal law."
Until last week, federal abortion funding had been limited by the "Hyde amendment," which ruled out all cases except those in which the mother's life is threatened or the pregnancy results from rape or incest.
The new restrictions were ordered by U.S. District Judge John F. Dooling, who ruled that the Hyde amendment is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court's decision last week was to allow Dooling's wording to stand until the court makes its own decision on the Hyde amendment, probably in June.
Anti-abortion delegates argued yesterday that the legislature should not reconsider state funding requirements until the Supreme Court ruling on the Hyde amendment is handed down, and said Douglass's proposal may be unconstitutional, in part because it would precede that ruling.
"The federal decision is not an act of a legislative body, it is a cause of judicial review," said Del. Frank Pesci (D-Prince George's), who opposed Douglass's amendment. "It would be improper for us to act until that review is completed."
Douglass said, however, that his budget amendment provides for any action the Supreme Court might take by providing that the Maryland law be changed according to "any subsequent decision" by the Court. His measure passed the subcommittee by a 5-2 vote, and will be considered by the full committee next week.
Anti-abortion leaders said this afternoon they probably will respond to Douglass's initiative by launching their own campaign in the House, a move they had not previously planned. "The Supreme Court decision has confused everyone," said Del. Timothy Maloney (D-Prince George's), a leader of the anti-abortion faction in the House."We're just going to have to battle it on the House floor and maybe in the [Appropriations] committee."
A major issue in the debate this year is likely to be whether the state is required to have abortion funding language that is at least as liberal as that of the federal government. In the past several years, that question has not been raised because Maryland's law has been less restrictive than the disputed Hyde amendment.
Douglass argued today that in order to receive federal Medicaid funding, Maryland must conform to the federal requirements -- or those temporarily ordered last week.
The anti-abortion forces disagree, saying that the state does not have to recognize any such obligation until the Supreme Court rules on the issue in another abortion case it is considering this year.