Abortion debate shifts to issue of religious freedom


ANNAPOLIS -- With a showdown on abortion scheduled for tomorrow in the House of Delegates -- a showdown postponed by a last-minute truce reached before 1 a.m. yesterday -- activists on both sides of the issue are spending the weekend in furious, last-ditch lobbying.

But opponents of abortion are shifting the debate from abortion to a topic perhaps even more emotional: freedom of religion.

"A fundamental issue of religious liberty," Richard Dowling, lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference, said of his fight against the abortion-rights bill.

Supporters of the bill, however, describe the campaign against it differently: "Scare tactics," said Delegate Lawrence A. LaMotte, D-Baltimore County.

"They say, 'All Catholic hospitals are going to shut down if this bill passes.' That's what's being fed out there."

"The purpose of these people is to kill the bill, pure and simple," said Delegate Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, another leader of the House's abortion-rights faction.

At the center of the debate is the so-called "conscience clause," the part of the bill meant to protect doctors, nurses and other health-care workers who oppose abortion.

The bill would retain legal protections for people who will not perform or participate in abortions but would no longer extend such protection to people who will not refer a woman for an abortion.

The House of Delegates convened briefly at 11:59 p.m. Friday to begin debate on the conscience clause in a session scheduled by House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, to try to force weary legislators to vote or reach a truce.

In less than an hour, the two sides agreed to a compromise: The anti-abortion forces could delay a vote until tomorrow.

In return, they would offer no further amendments and try no further stalling tactics.

Tomorrow, the House will reconvene at 4 p.m. to take up the issue, beginning with an amendment concerning the conscience clause.

Catholic hospitals, backed by Baltimore Archbishop William H. Keeler, say that the new bill compromises the religious freedom of people who choose not to refer women for abortions.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. says it does not require people who do not believe in abortion to refer patients for the procedure.

However, in a letter to delegates, the attorney general said that if a doctor refused to refer a patient for an abortion in a case where the procedure was medically advisable, and the woman suffered injury, that doctor might be sued for negligence.

Supporters of the abortion-rights bill say the objections raised by the Roman Catholic Church are meant only to divert votes from the bill.

"What they're doing is blowing the whole thing out of proportion," said Bebe Verdery, lobbyist for Planned Parenthood Maryland. "They want to kill the bill."

"They have two agendas working here," said Steven Rivelis of Choice PAC, an abortion-rights group. The opponents "want to make sure their institutions aren't harmed, which isn't going to happen, if you read the attorney general's opinion. And they also want to kill the bill."

But Delegate Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, one of the staunchest abortion opponents in the House, insists that the fight goes beyond legislative strategy. "We should not be passing legislation that we know is wrong, that we know is oppressive to the rights of Catholic hospitals," he said.

"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," said Mr. Dowling.

The abortion-rights bill at stake would allow abortions 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 protect the life or health of the woman or if the fetus were defective.

A similar bill died last year after abortion opponents in the Senate filibustered for eight days.

This year, the bill moved smoothly through the Senate and seemed certain of passage in the House.

But opponents of abortion, pressing the importance of the conscience clause, managed to win a delay of the final vote and now see the dispute as their strongest chance for blocking the legislation.

They concede they probably do not have enough votes to kill the bill outright. But if the opponents can convince enough of their colleagues that the measure must be amended, they may succeed in wounding it fatally.

Any changes would require the bill to be sent back for another vote in the Senate, which passed the measure last week. And President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, has warned that he would not bring the issue back to the floor.

Yesterday, heads of Catholic hospitals joined the campaign against the measure.

Sister Mary Louise, president of St. Agnes Hospital, said she and her assistants have spoken with 11 delegates to urge the bill be amended.

Sister Mary Thomas, president of Mercy Hospital, said, "I certainly don't think that we should be obligated or forced to refer for abortion. My concern is it could open the door to even more abortion advocacy."

The supporters of the abortion-rights bill believe they have a majority in the House and will spend the weekend calling delegates to guard against any defections.

But they know that the religious arguments are powerful -- particularly for Catholic delegates.

"We know the people who are most likely to be barraged by calls they organize," Ms. Verdery said. "And we are countering those with our own phone banks. We have our own networks. We are making sure that those legislators who voted with us on the amendment know we appreciate that and that we want them to stay us."

On Friday, one abortion-rights delegate said his wife's Catholic obstetrician, "the man who delivered my children" at a Catholic hospital, had lobbied him.

"I think that the bill strikes the proper balance between individual religious beliefs and medical standards," Delegate Rosenberg said.

"I think some of the delegates don't yet understand how seriously people of faith, any faith, feel about threats to their consciences and religious freedoms," Mr. Dowling said. "I think some of them are going to find out."

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