The state attorney general's office has told legislators here that Maryland may lose all of the approximately $115 million a year it receives in U.S. Medicaid funds unless the General Assembly liberalizes the state's standards for funding abortions for poor women.
In a five-page opinion that was received by Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, staff attorney Linda H. Lamone supported the contention of proabortion legislators that Maryland must change its abortion-financing standards to conform to those temporarily ordered for the federal government last week by the Supreme Court. Failure to conform, the opinion said, would jeopardize the state's participation in federal Medicaid, a program that provided health services for the underpriviledged.
The opinion added to a growing conflict in the General Assembly here over changes in abortion funding. While proabortion legislators said the legal argument would help their drive to liberalize state requirements, their antiabortion opponents announced they would respond by attempting to tighten the state restrictions on abortions even further.
The wording of the federal requirements, which were drawn up by a New York judge and upheld by the Supreme Court while it considers the issue of funding restrictions, permits an abortion when a physician certifies it is necessary "in light of all factors." This standard would allow abortions in almost all cases, state officials have said.
The legal opinion delivered to legislators late yesterday, said that "the enormous risks inherent in the potential loss of federal Medicaid funding require that Maryland conform precisely, or at least as closely as possible, to the prevailing federal requirements."
Antiabortion leaders, who caucused this morning to consider the attorney general's office opinion, said today they did not think the state had to be bound by federal rules until the Supreme Court makes its final ruling on the constitutionality of abortion restrictions.
State Sen. Peter Bozick (D-Prince George's) said the antiabortion forces in the senate have enough votes to attach the more conservative restrictions to the budget when it is considered on the Senate floor early next week.
Bozick, who will support the new restrictions with State Sens. Edward T.
Conroy (D-Prince George's) and Francis X. Kelly (D-Baltimore County), said the senators have not yet decided on the exact wording they will propose.
In the House, Del. John Douglass (D-Baltimore City), who supports abortion funding, has introduced a budget amendment that would require the state to adopt the liberalized federal rules, subject to "any subsequent rulings by the Supreme Court." The amendment now is before the House Appropriations Committee.
Antiabortion House leaders, who have asked for their own attorney general's ruling on the constitutionality of Douglass' proposal, said today they were not sure they could muster the votes in the House to defeat it, much less pass the more restrictive language being considered in the Senate.
The abortion issue in the General Assembly thus is considered likely to end up before a House-Senate conference committee -- as it did last year -- regardless of the various legal rulings.
Despite the apparent conflict ahead over the federal and state restrictions, one of the legislators who requested the attorney general's office opinion, Senate Majority Leader Rosalie Abrams (D-Baltimore City), said today that this year's dispute might have no impact on the abortions that actually are financed for poor women in Maryland.
Abrams said the state Department of Health, following orders late last week from federal officials, had already directed its agencies to follow the federal guidelines and ignore the more restrictive Maryland standard.