Bonny Ann Fritz, 20, was in the operating room and minutes away from having an abortion three weeks ago when her estranged husband, Chris, 22, rushed into the abortion clinic in downtown Hagerstown, hoping to talk her out of it.
When she refused to see her husband, he sprinted across the street and asked his attorney to get a court order to block the abortion.
In a flurry of legal maneuvers that took about 30 minutes, the lawyer, R. Martin Palmer, obtained a temporary restraining order stopping the operation. Two days later, when the judge issued his permanent ruling, Bonny Fritz' attorney, Barbara Mello, took the case to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which restored Fritz' right to have her 10-week-old fetus aborted.
Bonny Fritz had her abortion -- just a few hours before the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, reinstated the judge's decision against the surgery.
What had become a nightmare for the young couple, the tragic denouement in a marriage that had begun with a head-over-heels romance three years earlier, might well have ended there. But Chris Fritz, who says he's acting on behalf of other husbands, decided he would pursue the case through the state courts in hopes of an eventual ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that a husband has rights equal to the wife's in an abortion decision.
"Even if I couldn't save my own baby's life, maybe the court will change the law so that somebody else's baby can be saved from an abortion," says Chris Fritz.
The Maryland Court of Appeals agreed to decide early next year whether Washington County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Moylan was correct in permitting Chris Fritz to veto his wife's abortion decision. The court has asked lawyers on both sides to address, "Whether a husband has the right under either the Constitution of the United States or Constitution of Maryland or otherwise by law, to challenge his wife's decision to have an abortion."
The state's high court also has agreed to decide, in what is expected to be a forum to debate the characteristics of "personhood," whether Maryland's child abuse law can be applied to a fetus being aborted.
Some attorneys knowledgeable in abortion law don't think Chris Fritz has a chance.
They cite Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark ruling that states may not intrude on a woman's constitutional right to have an abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy.
The decision should be left to a woman and her physician, the court said.
But Sarah Weddington, the attorney who successfully argued Roe v. Wade, said it appears the Supreme Court is ready to take a new look at abortion.
The court has scheduled to hear six abortion-related cases this fall, she said.
None concerns husband's rights, but that issue is undergoing some review in lower courts.
"To that extent, the Fritz case could be significant," said Weddington.
Weddington doesn't believe Fritz can win the argument that the fetus is a person, and therefore protected by child abuse laws.
But Chris Fritz' attorney, Palmer, one of Hagerstown's leading civil lawyers, thinks differently. Nine years of advanced medical technology since the Roe case show the fetus is a human being, says Palmer, who has taken the case virtually for free.
There were no thoughts of frantic court battles in April 1980, when Chris Fritz, then 19 years old and a fast-food chain employe, met 17-year-old Bonny Ann Schwensen, then a high school senior working part time at a drug store lunch counter.
From the beginning, Chris and Bonny, who married eight months later in December, shared a simple dream.
They wanted a comfortable life style in the Appalachian Mountains. He looked forward to the day when he could spend more time stalking the white-tailed deer. She wanted pretty new clothes and a new car. They both wanted a happy family of two children. And like many couples so young, they wanted it all, immediately.
They had a baby girl last December. But other realities of marriage proved disappointing. During the 18 months of their marriage, Bonny Fritz left her husband twice because she said he refused to pay the family's bills and because he struck her. Chris Fritz admits that money to care for the family was often scarce, but denies that he ever assaulted his wife, who he said rarely cooked him meals or cleaned the house.
In time, the small mobile home they rented in the rural community of Boonsboro began to resemble a cold battleground, rather than the warm haven they had imagined in the days before they married.
The two of them became like many young couples marriage counselors see who, unless they've made the break from home and are ready to stand on their own economically, run into trouble.
Bonny Fritz, who had lived with her parents until her marriage, said she sometimes had regrets that she had chosen to marry so young. And she felt that her husband was not ready to fully shoulder the responsibilities of a family.
"He never wanted to stay at home with me and the baby," Bonny Fritz said recently. "He didn't want to feed the baby at night or change her diapers. All he wanted to do was go deer hunting. His pride and joy was the mounted head of an eight-point buck. He hung it in the living room. And I had to look at it every day."
"Chris wanted me to go hunting with him, but I couldn't stand the thought of killing those defenseless animals," Bonny Fritz continued. "He wanted me to go drinking with him and his friends at the bars, but I don't drink."
Chris Fritz said he did not know exactly why his wife sometimes appeared frustrated. He said his attempts to occasionally discuss their relationship always erupted into arguments.
The couple's first discussion of abortion came last Christmas when a childhood friend of Bonny Fritz told her in a letter that she had had her pregnancy aborted after her boyfriend, the father of the child, left town and she decided she did not yet want to be a mother.
"Bonny got real upset when she read the letter," Chris Fritz recalled. "I remember her saying, 'I can't believe she did that. I'd never have an abortion.' "
But Bonny Fritz now says she feels her friend "did the right thing. At first I didn't understand," she said. "But I talked with my friend and she told me that she wasn't married, that her boyfriend had abandoned her, and that she didn't think she could handle being a mother."
When she was nine and one half weeks pregnant with their second child, Bonny Fritz gathered her belongings and left her husband after he objected to her plans to have an abortion.
She and Chris tell different stories of the events leading to her departure. "About a week before I went in for a pregnancy test, I told Chris I thought I was pregnant and that I didn't want to have another child," Bonny Fritz said. "He agreed that we shouldn't have another child and told me he wanted me to have an abortion. He said he'd pay for it and that he'd even take me to the abortion clinic for the operation."
Chris Fritz described the same event this way: "Bonny asked me to keep the baby while she went in for the pregnancy test," he said. "When she came back, she was crying. I asked, 'Are you pregnant?' And she said, 'Yes!' "
"She ran into the bedroom," Fritz added. "She said, 'I don't want to have another baby--not now.' I told her we would afford it, that we had good insurance. I got excited and went to work and told everyone we were going to have another baby."
"Two days later, Bonny told me she was going to have an abortion on Sept. 15," recalled Fritz, who said his wife had already told him she was leaving him to get a divorce. "She asked me if I'd pay the $180 for it. I said, 'No! I'm not going to pay for you to kill my baby.' "
Chris Fritz says he had already accepted the baby as a person. "We learned in our Lamaze classes the first time my wife was pregnant how, almost from the first day of conception, the baby has its eye and hair color," he said.
Bonny Fritz didn't share that view. "As far as I'm concerned, it's not quite a life during the first 10 to 12 weeks," she said.
The night before she was to have the abortion, she rejected her husband's last-minute plea to abandon the idea. "He told me to come back home, that things would be different, that we wouldn't have any more fights," she said. "But I told him I didn't believe he would be different. He begged me to go ahead and have the baby and let him pay for it and keep it. But I felt that if he hasn't been interested in keeping the baby we already have, he wouldn't be able to handle another baby."
"It was an agonizing decision," she added. "I knew I was going to be separated and looking for a job. There was no way I could manage with two kids. So I finally decided that having an abortion was the best thing for me, right now."
Bonny Fritz said a friend drove her to the Hagerstown Reproductive Health Services clinic that morning and she began the orientation for the minor surgery. "They told me my husband was out there to see me," she said. "But I told them I didn't want to see him. I'd made up my mind.
"They told my husband he'd have to leave or they'd call the police. My husband left and a few minutes later, they handed me some court papers while I was waiting for the doctor and said they would not be able to perform the abortion that day. But they said I could go to Baltimore or to Washington to have it done."
Judge Moylan says he based his decision to temporarily halt the abortion "strictly on common law, the Maryland Equal Rights Amendment and my personal belief that the husband's and father's consent is needed to terminate a pregnancy."
Personal feelings also propelled lawyer Martin Palmer. As he rushed through the judicial maze that day, Palmer, whose own wife is expecting, said he felt his emotions rising.
"I was desperate to save that unborn child's life," Palmer said. "And once we got the court order, we thought we'd done it."