The Maryland Senate voted 24 to 22 tonight to place tight restrictions on the state's funding for abortions for poor women. The new rules would be almost as restrictive as the federal standard for abortion funding temporarily struck down last month by the Supreme Court.
The Senate's vote was a qualified victory for the legislature's antiabortion forces, who lost an earlier vote to restrict abortions to cases where the life of a woman would be threatened or in instances of rape or incest.
After the Senate failed to approve that language by a vote of 24 to 23, antiabortion senators offered a new amendment that would allow abortions in cases where a doctor certified that a pregnancy might cause "severe and longlasting physical health damage to the woman."
That slight change was enough to switch the vote of Sen. Arthur Helton (D-Harford). Another senator, Frederick Malkus (D-Dorchester), who also voted against the original language, left the chamber before the second vote, apparently at the behest of the antiabortion legislators.
The proposed new funding rules would eliminate a provision in the current Maryland law that allows abortions for reasons of emotional health as well as physical health.
The tighter restriction is likely to face a harsh reception in the House of Delegates, which in the last several years has adopted more liberal abortion positions than the Senate. If the House does reject the new Senate language, the issue would be resolved by a conference committee.
Although they said they were concerned about the upcoming House vote, the sponsors of the new language said they were pleased with their victory. "This is language that has some dentures in it, unlike last year," said Del. Timothy Maloney (D-Prince George's), who helped draft it.
The sponsors of the funding restrictions, led by Prince George's Sens. Edward T. Conroy (D), and Peter Bozick, said they could not have won approval for the more restrictive language they originally sought if a vote on their proposal had come on Friday, when the Senate began its annual abortion debate.
Proabortion legislators managed to postpone the vote until tonight, and over the weekend, Sen. Edward Mason (R-Cumberland) changed his position, according to Conroy.
Then tonight, the proabortion senators managed to delay the vote another 1 1/2 hours while they waited for two of their proabortion colleagues to arrive. Sens. Victor L. Crawford (D-Montgomery) and Robert Douglas (D-Baltimore City) both rushed to the State House from out-of-town meetings in order to cast deciding votes.
"I wouldn't have missed it for the world," said Crawford, a candidate for the U.S. Senate who was speaking at a Democratic meeting in Oxon Hill this evening.
The language adopted by the Senate contains a provision designed to accommodate the Supreme Court's final ruling on the constitutionality of the restrictive federal language later this year. If the court decides that restrictions on funding of abortions for poor women are unconstitutional, and if Maryland's federal health care funds are threatened by the state continuing to have restrictive language, the new restrictions would be dropped.
A federal judge in New York has already ruled that the funding restrictions are unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court last month temporarily upheld that decision while it considers the case.