Maryland lawmakers opposed to abortion say they will push legislation making it more difficult for minors to terminate pregnancies without notifying a parent, part of a narrow agenda carefully crafted to garner the support of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
With the election of the first Republican governor in 36 years, abortion foes are mindful that their chances of passing restrictions are vastly improved and say they do not want to overreach. About 30 strategists from both parties gathered yesterday to plot their course in a political landscape that shifted dramatically with the November elections.
"Everything we do, we're doing with the governor in mind," said Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Harford). "We want to put something on his desk that he can sign."
Jacobs and other lawmakers are keeping their plans under tight wraps and have not yet filed any bills, but several said that a top priority will be toughening the state's parental notification law. Ehrlich has indicated that he could support that tack, and lawmakers said they are keeping his office apprised of their thinking.
"We are talking to leadership, and the governor is part of leadership," said Senate Minority Whip Andrew P. Harris, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties.
Ehrlich spokesman Paul E. Schurick said the governor is generally supportive of parental notification but could not comment until he sees a specific bill.
"Legislators on both sides of this debate have talked to the governor," Schurick said. "But the governor has made no commitments and has seen no proposals."
Maryland's law is unique in that it allows a doctor to bypass parental notification requirements. Other states require minors to go before a judge before bypassing parental notification.
Richard J. Dowling, who as the representative for the Maryland Catholic Conference has helped organize the antiabortion strategy sessions, called Maryland's law a fraud.
Parents should be able to help their children through a difficult time, he said, and should not be cut out of the loop "because an abortion doctor who has probably never seen the girl before and probably won't see her again can decide she is mature enough to make the decision on her own."
Planned Parenthood, which supports abortion rights, argues that most girls seeking abortions do tell their parents. But for those who can't, said Wendy Royalty of the Maryland chapter, judicial bypass laws represent an undue burden, forcing them to navigate a complicated legal system and causing emotionally wrenching delays. "This could lead to later-term abortions, which no one wants," she said.
Harris said it is too early to talk about specific bills because antiabortion lawmakers have not settled on a strategy. In general, he said his coalition was heartened by Ehrlich's election, despite his mixed voting record during four terms in Congress.
Abortion rights advocates are already gearing up for a fight, which they expect will include attempts to strip out Medicaid funding for some abortions. Though Ehrlich included the money in his budget, it can be gutted without his approval. An attempt last year came one vote short of passage.
"They're looking for wedge issues, ways to recast a woman's right to choose, so that it can be narrowed significantly without alienating the public," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery).
Maryland has some of the nation's most liberal laws on abortion, and opponents have failed repeatedly over the past two decades to rally support for new restrictions. But, as the Medicaid fight last year underscores, past votes have been close: In 1999, a bill that would have banned the late-term abortions passed the Senate and failed in the House by just three votes.
This year, abortion rights advocates are counting on key committee chairmen who support their cause to keep the bills from reaching the House or Senate floor. Although the General Assembly is overwhelmingly Democratic, antiabortion legislation has bipartisan support.