In a startling twist in the emotional debate over abortion funding for poor women, the House of Delegates today voted to apply the same restrictions to Maryland state employes seeking abortions under the state insurance program as to indigent women using Medicaid.
The measure, passed by a coalition of antiabortion forces and some of the staunchest advocates of more liberal abortion policy, for the first time tied the fate of state workers and their families to that of poorer women.
On the larger issue of the restrictions themselves, the House passed the same compromise language that appeared in last year's budget. But antiabortion leaders contend it contains a "loophole so large" that it actually restricts nothing.
The issue is far from resolved. The more conservative state Senate voted two weeks ago to place tight restrictions on abortion funding. The expected impasse arising out of today's House action will have to be resolved by a special conference committee composed of representatives from both sides of the issue.
Whatever the General Assembly decides, the issue may ultimately be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court which is considering two cases dealing with the constitutionality of abortion funding restrictions.
The abortion debate arises each year as part of the discussion of the state's budget. Abortion funding is a small, but extremely controversial, part of that document, which must be passed by both the House and Senate. The language on abortion funding for both state workers and indigent women must be agreed upon in the yearly debate over the budget.
The House arrived at its budget amendment today, after two wrenchingly close votes on amendments offered by each side in the debate -- one for more restrictive, the other far more liberal.
The compromise amendment adopted by a 72-to-67 vote contains one key phrase.
It allows for state-funded abortions when "it can be ascertained by the physician within a reasonable degree of medical certainty that continuation of the pregnancy could have a serious and adverse effect on the woman's present or future mental health."
Del. Timothy Maloney (D-Prince George's), leader of the anti-abortion forces, argued strenuously against the language calling it the "mental health loophole."
He argued that under the same language this year, the state health department "is funding all abortions."
Projected figures show that of the 5,800 Medicaid abortions expected in Maryland, nearly 1,500 will be performed for this reason.