Sides scramble to line up votes on abortion bill


With a final vote on an abortion-rights bill scheduled in the House of Delegates today, the measure's opponents spent the weekend trying to encourage defectors -- particularly Catholic delegates -- while the bill's supporters worked to keep their majority solid.

"It is going to be a close vote, but we feel very strongly that we will prevail," said Delegate Lawrence A. LaMotte, D-Baltimore County, one of the House's abortion-rights leaders.

The bill would allow abortion without government interference until the time in pregnancy when the fetus might be able to survive outside the womb. After that time, abortion would be allowed only to save the woman's life or health, or if the fetus is deformed.

Abortion opponents concede they probably do not have the votes to kill the bill outright and instead have launched an indirect assault. They hope to doom the measure by amending it.

Any change in the bill would require it to be sent back to the Senate,which approved the bill Tuesday. But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, has warned he will not bring the issue back to the Senate floor.

Without Senate action, an amended bill would die.

Abortion opponents now are fighting for one last proposed amendment -- a change in the wording of the so-called "conscience clause."

That provision offers legal protections for doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals who choose not to perform or participate in abortions. The bill's opponents argue, however, that the measure removes protections for those who choose not to refer patients for abortions.

In a letter to delegates, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. disagreed, saying the new bill does not require anyone to refer a patient for an abortion. Nor, he said, does it remove any legal protections -- except in cases where an abortion is medically advisable and the woman suffered injury because her doctor did not refer her for one.

The Maryland Catholic Conference insists the conscience clause, as written in the bill, would harm Catholic hospitals. And Catholic hospital presidents have joined in the campaign for the amendment.

Abortion-rights lobbyists say the Catholic pressure for an amendment is meant not to improve the bill but to kill it. If the church is worried only about the conscience clause, they say, a separate bill easily could allay any concern.

Delegate Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, one of the House abortion-rights leaders, confirmed that a conscience-clause bill has been drafted and is ready for introduction. "After this [abortion-rights] bill passes, I for one would support them if they want a separate bill," Mr. Rosenberg said.

Steven Rivelis, an abortion-rights lobbyist, said, "The attorney general says this isn't a problem, but if legislators want to reassure their constituents, they have another vehicle to accomplish that through a separate bill."

On Saturday, Sister Mary Louise, president of St. Agnes Hospital, said she would accept a revision of the conscience clause in a separate bill.

"I know that it's the will of the people that they're going to pass [an abortion-rights bill] anyway," Sister Mary Louise said. "I'd like to be sure our rights are protected. A separate bill is acceptable, if it would pass."

Over the weekend, anti-abortion activists lobbied parishioners at churches in the districts of some Catholic delegates. "Catholic voters in this state are going to remember the vote on this," said Richard J. Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference.

Meanwhile, lobbyists who support the measure contacted delegates they fear may be under religious pressure to reassure them and ask their continued support.

Delegate Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, a staunch opponent of abortion, said he does not believe that amending the bill will kill it. "If this amendment comes on, there will be overwhelming pressure on the president of the Senate to bring this bill up again," Mr. Maloney said.

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