The Prince George's County Council voted yesterday to postpone until at least September the introduction of a controversial bill that would prevent women from obtaining abortions at two county-owned hospitals.
The decision disappointed abortion opponents, since six of the 11 council members had told constituents they were behind the bill. Two of the council members favoring the abortion ban, William B. Amonett and David G. Hartlove, were not present when the 6-to-3 vote in favor of postponement was taken. In addition, one member in favor of the ban, Sue V. Mills, voted for postponement.
One of the more prominent anti-abortionists at the meeting was Rita Bogley of Bowie, wife of Lt. Gov. Sam Bogley, who said: "I'm just stick about this vote. We know that what these people did here today will result in some babies' eyes being burned, their stomachs being burned and painful convulsions. They will be using some of our tax money for this." She was referring to allegations by antiabortionists that abortions kill some viable fetuses.
One of the council members opposing the ban, Ann L. Lombardi, declared: "All the sponsors of this bill are males inflicting their personal biases on the women in Prince George's County. I feel that [just] because I'm a legislator, I shouldn't impose my value system on someone else."
About 100 county residents attended the emotional council work session, 60 wearing "pro-life" buttons sitting on one side of the room and 40 wearing "pro-choice" buttons sitting on the other. After the session, the "pro-life" and "pro-choice" advicates argued with each other individually.
The issue of whether to ban abortions in county-owned hospitals has been a source of intense debate since last year, when County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan issued an order prohibiting doctors in the hospitals from performing abortions.
The order was struck down in circuit court after the Ameican Civil Liberties Union filed a suit charging that Hogan had exceeded his authority in an area that should be reserved for a legislative body. Hogan appealed the court's decision to the court of appeals, which will rule on the issue in September, and also asked the council to introduce legislation banning abortions in the county hospitals. Last month five council members drafted such a bill.
But the introduction of the bill was thwarted yesterday after council member Lombardi suggested that the council wait until Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs issues an opinion on whether the council has legislative authority to ban abortions -- or whether such authority should be reserved for the state legislature.
The council had asked Sachs for an opinion on the matter, but Sachs refused to issue one because the appeals court has not decided whether Hogan has the authority to prohibit abortions at county hospitals.
"I don't know if we even have legislative authority over this," said Lombardi, who believes women should have the right to have abortions. "We are simply inviting lawsuits."
Stephen Friedman, a lawyer for the ACLU, has said that he would file a suit against any county law banning abortions, on the grounds that the county wrongfully has preempted the state's legislative authority in the area.
But proponents of an abortion ban have been phoning council members and deluging them with mail during the last few months. Much of the mail -- which outnumbers pro-abortion mail 3 to 1 -- has been prompted by local priests and ministers, who advised their congregations to write to council members expressing their views on abortion, according to several ministers. The ministers in some cases were contacted by members of the Maryland affiliate of the Moral Majority and urged to ask their congregations to write to the council.
Yesterday's victory appeared to be long to those who believe that women should have the right to have abortions. "Anything that keeps this bill bottled up pleases me," said Gail Reinhart of Prince George's Citizens for the Right to Choose.