ANNAPOLIS, SEPT. 21 -- Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, breaking a long silence seven weeks before the general election, said today that he personally opposes abortion but as governor would veto legislation that does not give women wide discretion in choosing an early term abortion.
"As a matter of public policy, I will not sign any legislation that restricts the ability of women to make their own personal decisions in this matter," Schaefer said.
"Even if a restrictive law were passed, I am not convinced we could enforce it, and Maryland women would be forced to seek dangerous illegal abortions or, if they could afford it, go to other states."
Schaefer left open the possibility, however, that he could support some restrictions on abortions after the fetus is developed sufficiently to survive outside the womb, mentioning a range of 20 to 24 weeks of pregnancy. He also declined to take a firm stand on whether parents should be notified or asked to give consent when minors seek abortions, saying that parental involvement is a "constitutional question."
Schaefer's position, coupled with the primary defeat of four antiabortion state senators, appeared to enhance the prospects of abortion-rights legislation in the General Assembly next year, leaders on both sides of the issue said.
The 68-year-old bachelor governor, who long has been criticized for refusing to state a position on the emotional issue, said he had prepared a statement in May but released it today because "I wasn't ready to say it" earlier.
Schaefer described the decision as the most difficult of his political career, which includes 15 years as mayor of Baltimore and nearly a full term as governor. It was made, he said, after conferring with clerics of many faiths, discussing the issue with staff and friends and reading personally the thousands of letters that have flooded his office.
"People with moral and religious views as compelling and as significant as mine have a different view of the abortion issue. And just as I trust my own moral and religious views, and as much as I want my views respected, I trust and respect theirs as well," Schaefer said.
"But many people of good faith believe that there are times when having an abortion is a proper moral and religious decision. Even more believe that the decision . . . whether or not to have an abortion should be reserved for the woman, not the state of Maryland or for politicians. I agree.
"In the final analysis, it comes down to just this: Donald Schaefer, the individual, is pro-life, but Donald Schaefer, the governor, is pro-choice."
Pat Kelly, a leader of the antiabortion Maryland Right to Life, said she was disappointed with Schaefer's position. "But we can still hope that his personal position on abortion will come into play in his decisions," Kelly added.
Karyn Strickler, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League, praised Schaefer's position as a "show of leadership." His stand, she said, "isn't radical, it's been the law of the land for almost 20 years."
The Sept. 11 primary elections, which saw four antiabortion incumbent senators defeated, signaled a strong tilt in Maryland toward support for abortion rights and will make it much easier for an abortion rights bill to pass in the General Assembly next year. The statement today had the effect, however, of telegraphing to lawmakers the kind of legislation that would be acceptable to Schaefer if he is reelected.
Richard Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, said the position taken by the popular Schaefer will make it more difficult for antiabortion advocates to prevail in the legislature and in a potential 1992 statewide referendum on the issue. Dowling added he was "not so much surprised as saddened" by Schaefer's decision.
Schaefer's position could also become an issue in the Nov. 6 election, in which he has been considered the easy winner. His opponent, Potomac Republican William S. Shepard, supports abortion only to save the woman's life or in cases of rape, incest or gross fetal deformity.
Shepard, a former Foreign Service officer who lost a congressional race in 1986 in Montgomery County, criticized Schaefer for the long delay. "He's been governor for three and one-half years, and people have been in limbo. If it weren't for the election, he wouldn't have put forth a position."
In an interview today, Schaefer maintained that neither the primary results nor the upcoming general election had a bearing on his decision to take a stand.
"The outcome of the primary told me what I already knew," Schaefer said. As for the general election, he said, "I'm sure everything is an issue, but I'm not concerned with anyone else's position on it."
As part of a prepared statement on abortion, Schaefer gave reporters a copy of a letter he received from a woman two days after the primary, in which the governor got 78 percent of the Democratic vote. The letter writer expressed admiration for Schaefer but said she voted for Schaefer's opponent because she didn't know the governor's position on abortion.
"You are our leader and you need to take a stand," the woman wrote. "Don't make the mistake of believing this is not an important issue or you lose at least one vote from me."
Schaefer, in an interview, cited the letter as an example of how deep feelings on abortion had created many one-issue voters in Maryland.
Beginning at the time of an acrimonious filibuster over abortion in the state Senate early this year, Schaefer has been barraged with advice on the issue, including the recommendations of women on his staff, who largely favor abortion rights.
"It was tough when people would come in and say to me they thought about having an abortion but they are pro-life and look at my wonderful child, age 2," he said. "It's tough on me when young women came in and said to me, 'Did you know I've had an abortion?' And I'd say no, and they'd tell me why. And it's tough for me to go to clinics and see babies that are totally disabled, retarded, they'll never have a real life."
During the 1986 Democratic primary, Schaefer also was viewed as the candidate most closely aligned with abortion rights advocates because he favored expanded public financing of abortions for poor women. After the election, however, he reversed his stand and opposed lifting current restrictions that limit state funding for abortions to cases of rape, incest, fetal deformity and where there is a risk to the physical or mental health of the woman.
Today, Schaefer said he will not recommend changes in the restrictions on publicly funded abortions. An aide said that decision was made, in part, because of the state's current financial condition.
Schaefer reiterated his support for adoption programs and said he would continue efforts to educate youths on the consequences of pregnancy.