Final vote on abortion bill might be today


ANNAPOLIS -- Abortion opponents in the House of Delegates began their assault last night on a bill designed to protect the right to abortion, but supporters of the measure held off amendments they feared could kill measure.

The fight over the bill's future will continue today with more debate. A final vote on the abortion-rights bill, moving swiftly through the legislature, could come this afternoon.

Last night, anti-abortion delegates tried to win concessions on two issues: notice to parents before a minor has an abortion, and the so-called "conscience clause," meant to protect doctors and other health-care workers who do not believe in abortion.

Both amendments failed.

The bill's backers believe that any effort to change the measure may be fatal. Adding an amendment would require the bill be returned to the Senate, which approved it Tuesday. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, has warned that he does not want to deal with the issue again and that an amended bill would die for want of a Senate vote.

In Baltimore yesterday, Archbishop William H. Keeler joined the fight against the bill, protesting that a clause in the bill would require Catholic doctors to refer women for abortions.

The attorney general's office has said the clause would not force anyone who does not believe in abortion to refer a patient for one except in cases of medical emergency.

But at a news conference, the archbishop said, "I am wondering what is happening to the First Amendment rights of people in our state who hold very deeply the conviction that every human life is sacred."

On the House floor last night, anti-abortion delegates pressed that argument.

"It has implications to every Catholic hospital in the state," said Delegate Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, one of the leaders of the anti-abortion forces.

Delegate Kenneth H. Masters, D-Baltimore County, said, "What we have before us is a question of tolerance."

But Delegate Nancy K. Kopp, D-Montgomery, said the requirement for referral, according to the attorney general, would occur only if a woman's life was threatened.

"I don't think anyone thinks a woman should die just because she's pregnant," Ms. Kopp said.

Mr. Masters also tried to tighten the clause that would require a parent be notified before a girl has an abortion.

The bill would allow doctors to decide whether a parent must be informed.

Mr. Masters tried unsuccessfully to add a requirement that a girl go before a judge if she does not want to involve her parents.

The abortion-rights bill would allow abortion without government interference until the time in pregnancy when the fetus might be able to survive outside the womb.

Later in pregnancy, abortion would be allowed only to save the life or health of the woman, or if the fetus has abnormalities.

Abortion opponents condemn the bill.

"This would be the most pro-abortion measure in the country," said David O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee. "This has absolutely no restrictions built into it."

Abortion-rights activists, however, say the bill only puts into law the standards that have governed abortion in Maryland since the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed the right to abortion in 1973.

"This bill would simply codify the Roe vs. Wade decision, which is merely the law of the land," said Dawn Johnsen, legal director of the National Abortion Rights Action League.

"This bill is not unique, because other states have already done it," she said.

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