Abortion bill on hold in House Midnight session leads to 2-day delay


ANNAPOLIS -- Delegates on both sides of the fight over abortion, called into a rare midnight session to struggle with the issue, agreed early this morning to reconvene the House on Monday for a showdown vote on an abortion-rights bill.

The compromise was reached before 1 a.m. The House had convened at a minute before midnight to consider an amendment offered by an opponent of the measure, and other amendments were expected if the first amendment failed -- setting up the possibility of a long battle.

But after a whole day of talks with Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., who is determined not to let the bill become mired in the House, the leaders of the abortion opponents and the abortion-rights forces had agreed to end the procedural delays and return to the House on Monday for a final vote on the emotional issue.

"I think the integrity of this House has been preserved," Mr. Mitchell said.

Both abortion-rights and anti-abortion advocates hailed the decision as a victory.

Steven Rivelis, a lobbyist for Choice PAC, an abortion-rights group, said the anti-abortion forces "realized they don't have the votes, and the pressure was put on them not to thwart the rule of the majority."

Richard Dowling of the Maryland Catholic Conference, which opposes abortion, said the two-day delay will prove "beneficial to [anti-abortion forces who] get a chance to tell our story and rally our people."

"The plan is to get to our people over the weekend and exhort them to get in touch with their elected officials from sun-up Monday until 4 p.m.," Mr. Dowling said.

Mr. Rivelis said he expects abortion-rights forces will match the opponents' efforts.

The fight now centers not on the bill but on an amendment -- offered by Delegate Martha S. Klima, R-Baltimore County -- meant to protect health-care professionals who do not want to refer women for abortions.

Mr. Dowling said the amendment "is addressed to the freedom of institutions and their individuals."

The attorney general has said that the amendment is not necessary because the bill would not require referrals by people who do not believe in abortion.

Supporters of the abortion-rights bill say the efforts to amend it are really efforts to kill it. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, has warned that the Senate will not reconsider an amended bill -- meaning the issue would die for this year.

The abortion-rights bill had been speeding through the legislature until it slammed into Delegate Klima's roadblock in the House of Delegates yesterday morning.

"We're playing hardball here," Delegate Klima said.

Anti-abortion activists, who know they don't have enough votes to kill the measure but may have enough to amend it, were jubilant.

"Every train has to make some stops," said Pat Kelly, a lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference, who had complained that the bill was being "railroaded."

L But House Speaker Mitchell decided to play hardball as well.

Determined not to allow the anti-abortion minority to use parliamentary rules to block the bill, he called the House back into session at midnight last night -- and vowed to reconvene every midnight until the delays end.

Passage had seemed so certain yesterday morning that Gov. William Donald Schaefer had reserved 2 p.m. for a bill-signing ceremony.

Catholic hospitals, backed by Baltimore Archbishop William H. Keeler, say the bill would force people who don't believe in

abortions to refer women to doctors who would perform them -- though letters from the attorney general's office dispute that interpretation.

Delegate Klima's amendment said that hospitals and health-care workers "may not be liable for civil damages or subject to disciplinary action or recrimination" for refusing to refer a woman for an abortion.

The House had defeated a similar amendment Thursday night.

Delegate Klima won a request to delay debate on the amendment for a day -- leading to Mr. Mitchell's ruling that the new day begins at midnight and the House would return then.

Many delegates, who had hoped to complete work on the emotional issue, grumbled -- some annoyed at the speaker's tough line, some angry at Delegate Klima.

Last year, an anti-abortion minority in the Senate filibustered for eight days, which led to the death of the bill.

Mr. Mitchell has said he would not preside over similar stalling tactics in his House.

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.

The bill before the House also would require a doctor to notify a parent before a minor has an abortion, unless the doctor decides that telling a parent would not be in the girl's best interest; that notification might lead to physical or emotional abuse; or that the girl is mature enough to make her own decision.

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