ANNAPOLIS, FEB. 16 -- The long-running General Assembly debate over a bill that would guarantee legal abortion in Maryland appeared headed for resolution as the House of Delegates early today scheduled a Monday afternoon vote on the Senate-passed measure.
Under an agreement announced shortly after 12:30 a.m. by leaders on both sides of the abortion issue, the House will consider only one additional amendment -- dealing with abortion referrals -- before voting on whether to send the bill to Gov. William Donald Schaefer for his promised signature.
In debate for two days, the House rejected six amendments proposed by antiabortion delegates, most of them seeking to limit the availability of abortion in Maryland if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, its landmark 1973 abortion-rights ruling.
Abortion-rights supporters predicted today they would have a majority to approve the bill on Monday.
Though the abortion guarantees would be superfluous as long as Roe remains in effect, one portion of the bill would alter practices in Maryland immediately. That provision would require that a parent of a girl under age 18 be informed when the daughter sought an abortion.
After a hasty round of negotiations early today, antiabortion leaders promised to abandon stalling maneuvers in exchange for another vote on an amendment that would keep in place -- at least partially -- a "conscience clause" that shields doctors and hospitals from legal action if they decline to refer women for abortions because of religious or moral beliefs.
Del. Timothy F. Maloney (D-Prince George's), a leading abortion opponent, has argued that abolishing the conscience clause would expose health care workers and facilities -- particularly hospitals affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church -- to the possibility of lawsuits or administrative discipline. Church leaders in Maryland also have been urging the legislature not to tamper with immunity law.
On the other hand, abortion-rights advocates in the House contend that the bill would not force anyone to make referrals except physicians who discover that a pregnancy poses a health risk to the woman.
Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D), in an advisory letter delivered to lawmakers late Friday night, appeared to support the contention of abortion-rights supporters. Curran said a health-care provider likely would not be held liable for failing to refer a woman for an abortion unless the failure "was inconsistent with sound medical practice" and resulted in a significant delay in getting an abortion for medical reasons.
Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), a leading strategist among abortion-rights supporters, predicted that the House would reject the amendment for a second time.
There were indications, however, that some abortion-rights lawmakers were willing to offer a separate measure to address concerns about the conscience clause. Such a move would be consistent with calls from the Senate and Schaefer to keep the main abortion bill intact.
The abortion debate has raged in the General Assembly for a full year, tying up the Senate in an eight-day filibuster in 1990 and dominating the elections for all 188 legislative seats last fall.
In a statement released Friday afternoon, Schaefer warned against another "divisive" debate in the House, and promised to quickly sign the bill if it is passed in the form approved by the Senate.