The abortion debate has come down from the Supreme Court, down from Capitol Hill and Annapolis, to the local government of Prince George's County. The same familiar faces and neighbors who are called upon when trash needs collecting must now decide one of the most controversial issues of the day.
Because County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan has taken a crusading stand against abortion, each member of the County Council will soon have to take a position on whether abortion is murder or the individual right of a pregnant woman.
Five of the 11 council members are already committed to banning abortions in the two county-run hospitals and its separate clinic, unless the life of the mother is at stake. If they are joined by a sixth member, Prince George's will once more be in the vanguard of a controversisal issue, as it was with its 1978 approval of TRIM, one of the few absolute ceilings on property taxes. Hogan, who was a congressman in 1973 introduced a resolution favoring a constitutional ban on abortion, forced the issue last fall by banning the performance of abortions in county hospitals. Circuit Court, Judge Howard Chassanow ruled that Hogan had exceeded his authority and ordered that a woman be allowed to have an abortion at the Greater Laurel-Beltsville Hospital last October. Hogan immediately submitted to the County Council a bill to accomplish the ban through legislation.
The measure might have languished until the end of the current session, but Chairman Parris Glendenning and four other white male council members decided to take affirmative action on the touchy issue. They added their names as supporters of the bill and presented it for consideration. When it finally came up before a committee of the whole two weeks ago, five "pro-choice" members, all blacks or women, voted to shelve the bill until Attorney General Stephen Sachs issues an opinion on whether the proposed county legislation would conflict with state law. A sixth, and surprise, vote in favor of postponing a decision was cast by Sue Mills (D-Oxon Hill) who many had thought was committed to the anti-abortion side.
Last week, insisting, "I want to see a decision, up or down," anti-abortion council member Frank Casula brought the bill out of committee. Public hearings are expected to be scheduled within the next month.
The council must also address the question when it considers Hogan's proposed leasing of the county hospitals to the Hospital Corporation of America. The lease, which the council hopes to act on before its August recess, contains a clause banning abortions except in cases where a woman's life is endangered by pregnancy.
Glendenning acknowledged that if Hogan had not pushed his bill, the council would have stayed away from the abortion issue.
"There is no question that for good or bad, the initiative came from the executive and probably would not have been addressed without his action," said Chairman Glendenning, who is thought to have his eye on Hogan's job.
Opinion polls indicate that they needn't have gone out of their way to sponsor such a bill. A January survey by a local newspaper found that 65 percent of the county residents questioned disagreed with Hogan's initial ban. pA recent national poll found that 74 percent of all Americans favor laws that allow abortion under most circumstances, and that more than half approve of abortion on demand.
Nevertheless, council member Deborah Marshall, who opposes a county ban, said her colleagues tend to believe more in real people who write letters than in sample people represented in poll results.
"We as politicians who are facing district races are getting a lot of mail from the 'pro-life' people. They are a very, very vocal group, one that has made its numbers known," she said, adding, "There are those among us who are thinking of '82.
"It's fairly organized pressure," Glendenning said. "A majority of the county is pro-choice. But I also know you are elected to not only reflect the public will, but to do what you know is right.There's no doubt I will lose support because of this vote."
Glendenning and Casula say the believe life begins with conception, and that the role of a hospital is "to save life, not murder," as Casula put it. Both are Catholics, but they denied their religion had any influence on their position.
"I think you could be of any religion or no religion at all and still ask the question of 'where does life begin,' said Glendenning.
Ann Schutt, president of Prince George's County Right to Life, acknowledges that her movement seeks to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court decision by chipping away at the rights of certain women to have abortions. The 1977 Hyde amendment, by prohibiting use of federal Medicaid funds for abortions, affected poor women. A county ban would affect those who, for any reason, prefer to use public facilities.
"If we can save poor people's babies, we will do that. If we can stop tax dollars we'll do that," said Schutt."Abortion is wrong for everyone."
"The right to life of another person is not a personal decision. Really, we don't want to run people's lives. It's a simple matter of justice for us. The question is: is this thing in the woman a part of humanity, or isn't it?" t
In Prince Geroge's, of course, most abortions are performed in private clinics, where fees are lower than those chrged by the large county hospitals with their high overhead costs. But advocates of legal abortion fear a precedent could be set that could spread to every county in the state. In rural counties with few private medical facilities, such a ban could have a severe impact, say pro-choice spokesmen.
"Nobody is frankly pro-abortion," said Claire Bigelow, a Hyattsville mother of four who is chairman of the newly formed Prince George's Citizens for the Right to Choose. "What we are about is keeping abortion safe and legal for those who choose to have it."
The question is now before the council. The lives of the unborn, the slow death of women's sovereignty over their bodies and political fortunes hang in the balance.