ONCE WHEN DOING a column about capital punishment, I interviewed a former governor who twice had to decide whether to commute the sentences of condemned men. Although he was personally opposed to capital punishment, he nevertheless felt that he had to administer the law as written. The men died.
Now it is a long way from that governor and that state to Larry Hogan and Prince George's County, but the issue of whether or not a politician has the right to impose his personal morality on the electorate remains the same. In Hogan's case, the issue is abortion. He has forbidden it in all county hospitals and clinics.
Despite the controversy, the publicity and the law suits, Hogan's action is far from catastrophic. There are only two hospitals involved -- Prince George's General and Greater Laurel-Beltsville -- and they perform only about 250 abortions a year, numbers that hardly would entitle them to be called abortion mills.
Nevertheless, the issue is an important one. It might have turned out, for instance, that the county ran the only hospitals in the area, as is the case in some smaller and poorer jurisdictions, or that it ran the only other health facilities in addition to ones that already did not permit abortions. In that case, the county executive would be doing more than simply setting policy for a hospital -- he would be effectively forbidding the practice of abortion.
Hogan's action should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed his career. He is a man of passionate beliefs and one of them is that abortion is morally wrong. This is not a passing whim with him, but a matter of strong conviction -- even family conviction. It was his brother, a physician, who strongly lobbied the state legislature years ago to ban abortion in Maryland, and if there is such a thing as A First Family in Maryland when it comes to opposing abortion, it has to be the Hogans.
So what does an elected official do when he has the power to end a practice that he considers immoral? In the case of the governor and capital punishment, he thought he had no choice but to do what he had been elected to do -- administer the laws as written. The ones on the books. The ones passed by the legislature in the name of the people. He had, in fact, taken an oath to do just that. It was his obligation.
Abortion, of course, is a somewhat different matter, but the principle remains the same. Despite the sincerity and passion of his views on abortion, Hogan has taken a moral issue and turned it into a political squabble. To the victor it seems, goes the right to set abortion policy. It becomes like a job on the liquor board -- yet another spoil of politics.
What this does is establish a hierarchy of morality in which the highest is the one that wins at the polls. It reduces the issue to a matter of getting out the vote -- or having a really terrific media consultant. If Larry Hogan wins, then abortions are out. If someone else wins, then they are in. The physicians who are critical of Hogan have a point when they say he need not stop at abortions. He might also be opposed to nose jobs or corrective surgery -- although this criticism mocks and demeans his sincere objections to abortion.
But abortions really aren't the issue, either. The real issue is a situation where an election determines more than just who won, but also who gets to lose what rights -- in this case, the legal right to an abortion. Maybe it will be something else next time. No matter what it is, though, this sort of thing so extends the concept of a mandate as to almost incorporate the notion of a state morality. From now on in Prince George's County much more can change with an election than simple political offices. Now an election can determine a whole ethical system.
Lofty and heavy consideration of morality and ethics not withstanding, what really matters here is power. Hogan has been able to deprive someone -- a whole group in this case -- of certain rights, not because of the force of his argument, not because of the brilliance of his logic, not even because he took this particular issue to the voters and won real big, but simply because he can do it. It makes no difference if he is right or wrong, sincere or insincere, religious or irreligious or even if the action concerns abortion or garbage collecting. The real issue, in the end, is not abortion anyway, but one much older than that. It's abuse of power.