ANNAPOLIS, MARCH 3 -- Pro-choice Maryland legislators say they will try to loosen the restrictions on the state funding of abortion for poor women, a move that both sides on the issue predict will lead to a bitter legislative battle and a filibuster on the Senate floor.
"The feeling is that if it's not this year, it's never," said Sen. Paula Hollinger (D-Baltimore County), a leader of the pro-choice bloc in the Senate.
The fight takes on added significance this year because of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's decision to renege on a campaign promise to support the more liberal language. Schaefer announced in December that he had changed his mind on the issue and would seek no change in the language.
Schaefer's move infuriated feminist groups who supported him in his 1986 campaign because he was more adamant on the issue than his opponent, then-Attorney General Stephen Sachs. But pro-choice legislators have delayed a decision on whether to seek the change without the governor's support because it is sure to cause a divisive and bitter battle.
The change would not come in a bill, but in language added to the state budget. It is possible the more liberal language will be offered Friday when the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee takes a final vote on the budget, but antiabortion legislators believe it is more likely the amendment will be offered on the Senate floor next week.
Legislators on both sides of the issue believe that a majority of the 47-member Senate is in favor of changing the language. But the challenge for pro-choice senators is to muster the 32 votes needed to end a filibuster.
Said John C. Coolahan (D-Baltimore County), a leader of the antiabortion senators: "We don't have enough votes to take them head-on, but they don't have enough votes to shut us up on a filibuster."
Coolahan estimates that 26 senators favor the more liberal language. Pro-choice supporters won't disclose their vote counts, but Steven Rivelis of Marylanders for the Right to Choose said, "People wouldn't be going through this unless they were confident the numbers were there."
If the pro-choice senators are successful, the fight would move to the House. Its membership changed drastically in the 1986 elections, and both sides there claim a majority. "I really do think we're going to beat them," said Del. Timothy F. Maloney (D-Prince George's), who heads the antiabortion effort in the House.
Maryland is one of 14 states, plus the District, that provide for Medicaid-funded abortions. However, the funds are available only under the following restrictions: if the woman's life is endangered, if she is a victim of rape or incest, if the fetus is deformed, if there is substantial risk to the present or future health of the woman, or if there is a risk to the present or future mental health of the woman.
Pro-choice activists say those restrictions prohibit many poor women from receiving abortions and that there is a growing problem with receiving a doctor's certification that a pregnancy presents a risk to a women's future physical or mental health.