Like millions of other Americans, William Donald Schaefer clearly finds abortion a deeply troubling subject. Unlike roads, bridges or stadiums, this intractable issue can't be resolved with his legendary "do it now" energy. And yet, Supreme Court decisions allowing increasing state restrictions on abortion rights have made it impossible for governors or state legislators to dodge the issue. The Sept. 11 primary election in Maryland made one thing crystal clear: Voters feel strongly about this issue -- and candidates who want to outlaw abortion are likely to pay dearly for their views.
Schaefer coasted through four legislative sessions and through this month's primary without taking a clear stand on abortion. Now, however, he has announced a position that we believe will please the majority of Maryland voters. As the governor puts it, Schaefer the man is opposed to abortion, but Schaefer the governor will be pro-choice. And as governor, he says, he will veto legislation that "restricts the ability of women to make their own personal decisions in this matter."
Anti-abortion activists of course will contend that Schaefer is caught in a morally untenable position. They will argue emphatically that if you are genuinely "pro-life" personally -- as the governor maintains he is -- you cannot be pro-choice publicly. That, say the uncompromising anti-abortionists, is the moral equivalent of saying that you are personally opposed to slavery but you accept the right of others to hold slaves. There is a certain tortured logic in that analogy, even though in our view it is a false parallel.
But consistent or not, the position now adopted by Schaefer is the position increasingly embraced by many responsible officials. Abortion is a serious moral question on which conscientious people take divergent views -- as do the country's major religious bodies. Schaefer's approach will not satisfy those who believe abortion should be outlawed. But we believe his position will yield the best public policy, and we welcome his recognition that a majority of Marylanders simply do not believe that the intimate decision as to whether a woman will or will not bear a child should be made by the state.
With the resounding defeat of key legislators who led the fight to restrict abortion, it appears likely that the issue will no longer tie the Maryland General Assembly in knots. Perhaps now the legislature, with leadership from the governor, can turn to a serious pursuit of policies and programs -- family planning grants, family support centers and the like -- that can reduce the need for abortion. That, surely, is a result which should be welcomed by both sides of the wrenching debate.