A legislative conference committee today reached a compromise on the volatile issue of abortion funding that would slightly tighten restrictions on state payments for abortions for poor women but is far more liberal than rules sought by anti-abortion leaders in the legislature.
The compromise, approved by a House-Senate conference committee after two days of negotiations, eliminates the provision adopted by the House last week that would have extended the current abortion funding restrictions to the health plans of all state employes.
The provision was sought by some legislators on both sides of the abortion issue who argued that it was unfair to restrict abortion funding in the state health services for the poor, and not in other state health plans.
The compromise language, which in part changes the word "or" in the present law to "and", was expected to win approval from both the House and Senate tonight or tomorrow.
The present rules governing abortions allow them in cases where a physician determines that a pregnancy could have a "serious and adverse affect" on the mother's "present or future" physical or mental health.
The key change this year came in the area of mental health, which is used to justify 82 percent of the abortions in Maryland. The language approved by the conference committee requires a doctor to certify in writing, rather than simply "ascertain," that a woman's mental health could be affected. r
In addition, the phrase "present or future mental health" has become "present and future," indicating that a doctor must certify that a woman might be affected both at the time of the pregnancy and in the future, rather than at either time.
Two final amendments proposed to tighten the current law says that a doctor must agree that here is "a substantial risk" to a woman's future mental health, rather than simply arguing that a pregnancy "could" affect mental health.
Despite the more restrictive language on the mental health justifications for abortions, legislators said today they were unsure how much the new language would reduce state-funded abortions.
"It will reduce abortions some," said Del. Lorraine Sheehan (D-Prince George's), an abortion supporter on the conference committee. "We did give in somewhat, but we were not about to give up 'mental health.'"
Anti-abortion leaders argued that as long as the term "mental health," unqualified, appears in the law, most women can still obtain an abortion under the law.
"Everyone in our society suffers from mental health problems at some time," said Del. Timothy Maloney (D-Prince Goerge's), a leader of the anti-abortion movement in the legislature and the sole dissenter on the six-member panel that drew up the new language.
"We'll find out in the application whether the new mental health language is really tougher."
The Senate this year adopted abortion language that would have eliminated mental health as a consideration in whether abortions were funded, and that change was the goal of anti-abortion forces. The more liberal House approved the restrictions that currently apply.