A Prince George's County Circuit Court judge ruled yesterday that an 18-year-old, single Catholic woman could not be prevented from having an abortion in a county hospital today because of a recent ban on such procedures ordered by County Executive Lawrence Hogan.
However, at the request of county attorneys, Judge Howard S. Chasanow agreed to delay enforcement of his ruling until 10 this morning to give the county time to appeal to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
If that court rejects the county's appeal after a hearing this morning, the woman, identified in court records only as Jane Doe, will be permitted to go to Greater Laurel-Beltsville Hospital in Laurel today to have an abortion as she had requested.
Chasanow's order applies only to Jane Doe's specific case and does not deal with the legitimacy of Hogan's ban, which was also challenged in the suit, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. Hogan's order, issued Aug. 11, prohibits abortions at the two county-owned and operated hospitals except in cases where a woman's life would be threatened by carrying a pregnancy to term. Chasanow will hear arguments on the broader issue on Nov. 3.
Chasanow said he would allow Jane Doe's abortion to proceed because "I do feel very strongly that the woman would be seriously traumatized" if she were forced to go to a hospital other than the one she had chosen and where she might not be able to have her own doctor perform the procedure.
"Clearly there's no right-to-life issue here" because the woman indicated she would go to another hospital, although with trepidation, for an abortion if she were denied the services of Laurel hospital, he said. But, "after hearing Jane Doe's testimony, I feel there is [the possibility of irreparable injury]" if she were forced to go elsewhere.
Chasanow said he was delaying the enforcement of his order until 10 a.m. to allow a "quick review" of his decision by the state appeals court.
County attorney Robert Ostrom said yesterday that Hogan was "surprised" by the order and immediately decided to appeal it. "He was concerned that the county's facilities would be used to the detriment of this unborn child," Ostrom said.
Chasanow's decision followed a lengthly hearing in which the court heard a tape-recording of testimony that the pregnant woman had given in Chasanow's closed chambers.
The woman, a Laurel resident who is 13 weeks pregnant, said that the decision to have an abortion was a difficult one.
"It's against my religion," she said calmly. "I was never brought up like that. It never came to my mind that I would have to have an abortion."
She said that among the factors she considered were the "financial problems" her family would face because she would have to give up her job if she had a baby. She told the judge she wanted to go to Laurel hospital to have the abortion because it was near her home and it was the only hospital with which her family was familiar.
An abortion, she said, was an emotionally upsetting experience that would be even more traumatic if she were forced to go to a strange hospital. "I won't know nobody there. It's far away from my home and I might not have the doctor I want."
According to her attorney, Stephen Friedman, she first discovered she was pregnant last week when she went to her family doctor because she felt sick. He told her she was pregnant, which Friedman said she refused to believe at first.
Only after a week of talking with her family, which, he said, was very supportive, did she decide to go ahead with the procedure. She had not known about Hogan's ban when she went to a doctor at Laurel hospital to ask for an abortion. The doctor sent her to Friedman to see if she would be willing to be the test case for the suit the ACLU wanted to bring against Hogan's ban. Last weekend she agreed.
Jane Doe's case is considered an interesting one from a legal perspective because there appears to be no previous court ruling in a case in which a nonindigent woman was denied an abortion at a public hospital. According to a Hogan aide, the two public hospitals in Prince George's County performed about 100 elective abortions a year before the ban took effect. None has been performed since.