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Dozens address abortion as legislators face votes


ANNAPOLIS -- The spectators were placid at yesterday's legislative hearing on abortion until Dr. Paul Hoehner, an anesthesiologist with the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, brought images of war into the debate.

"The most dangerous place for an American today," Dr. Hoehner said, "is not with the Marine Corps on the Kuwaiti-Saudi border but in the wombs of the mothers of America."

Some spectators booed and hissed. Others thundered applause. The legislators chairing the hearing gaveled the room back to silence.

But that was a rare noisy moment in the Joint Hearing Room yesterday afternoon as members of the House Environmental Matters and Senate Judicial Proceedings committees listened for five hours to testimony on 12 bills related to the issue of abortion.

The testimony, both for and against the measures, repeated the same themes that legislators have heard for more than a year -- during the 1990 General Assembly, when an anti-abortion filibuster stalled the Senate for eight days, and through the sometimes fractious election campaigns.

But this year, abortion is sharing the Annapolis stage with several other issues: the economy, a proposed restructuring of the tax system, a scandal in the state health department and the distraction of the Persian Gulf war.

In an effort to deal with the abortion bills more smoothly this year, legislative leaders scheduled the hearing early in the session.

Committee votes on the bills could come as early as today, though they may wait until next week, with floor debate soon after.

About 200 people crowded the Joint Hearing Room to listen yesterday as dozens of witnesses took their turns before the microphones and offered their views on the array of bills.

The bills on the table range from a measure that would ban more than 90 percent of the abortions performed in Maryland today to one that would allow abortions without restriction until the time a fetus can survive outside the womb.

The committee members listened silently. They had agreed beforehand to ask no questions of the witnesses.

"What we are saying is, 'Give every woman in this state the right to make her decision' " on abortion, said Delegate Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, one of the leaders of the House's abortion-rights delegates.

But Sen. John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel, sponsor of bills that would restrict abortion, said that the fetus had rights as well.

"We are not talking about a tonsillectomy here," Senator Cade said. "We are not talking about an appendectomy. We are talking about the cessation of life in the body of the mother."

Richard J. Dowling of the Maryland Catholic Conference said that "abortion is changing the political landscape of Maryland."

Exit polls in the November election, Mr. Dowling said, showed that Gov. William Donald Schaefer's abortion-rights stance, which he declared in September, cost him votes.

And Baltimore's population dropped by 62,000 between 1980 and 1990 -- at the same time that 4,500 abortions were reported in the city each year of that decade, he said. Because of the population decrease, Baltimore will lost seats in the legislature.

"It could be argued that Baltimore City is being aborted into political oblivion," Mr. Dowling said.

Delegate Lawrence A. LaMotte, D-Baltimore County, testified against provisions that would require a parent be told before a girl could have an abortion.

Such laws can cause girls to delay seeking medical help or to seek illegal abortions, said Delegate LaMotte, father of two girls.

"I would rather have a daughter who has had a safe and legal abortion without my knowledge than risk the death of my daughter because the legislature decided it had a political need to mandate family communications," Delegate LaMotte said.

Mary Shaffrey, who is a sophomore at Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson, opposes abortion and testified in favor of bills that would require a parent to consent before a girl could have her pregnancy ended.

"You can't kill something just because you don't want it," she said. "That's lazy."

Last year, anti-abortion measures did not survive a Senate committee vote, while an abortion-rights bill was approved -- only to be caught in the filibuster on the Senate floor. Some legislators predict that only abortion-rights measures will win committee approval again this year -- but say abortion opponents will try to amend restrictions into any bill that reaches the full House and Senate.

Did the five hours of talk yesterday change anyone's minds?

"Really, it's public education," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Fund for a Feminist Majority. "The more you affect the public climate, the better."

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