Abortion: Same Issue, But New Year


Annapolis.--A YEAR AGO, abortion was the King Kong of issues here, a monster that seized the General Assembly and terrorized legislators until they finally managed to drive the creature from their chambers for the rest of the rest of the 1990 legislative session.

The siege, marked by an eight-day anti-abortion filibuster in the Senate, bruised legislators, wounded friendships and left people warier than ever of the abortion debate they knew they'd have to face in the future.

But this year, abortion -- though not quite a lamb of an issue -- turned out to be tameable. Before the 90-day legislative session was halfway through, an abortion-rights bill had been enacted and signed into law.

And legislative leaders who argued on both sides of the issue ended the debate with handshakes, complimenting each other for their courtesy on a difficult issue. Quite a contrast to the frustration and bitterness that marked last year's abortion debate.

What made the difference?

A Senate president and House speaker determined not to let the bill dominate this legislative session, people on both sides of the issue say. A politically organized abortion-rights electorate. The defeat last fall of the most passionate anti-abortion legislators. A governor who was willing to push for the bill's passage.

And, perhaps, exhaustion -- emotional and political.

After arguing about the bill through the 1990 legislature and watching the issue define many of the 1990 campaigns, many legislators believed there was no point in delaying a vote on the issue any longer.

No matter how eloquent the debate, no matter how many more weeks were spent lobbying, the outcome, the legislators believed, was unlikely to change.

"I think the horrors of the eight-day filibuster set the stage, set up a never-again atmosphere," Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, said last week, as the House was debating the bill. "The longer you let a bill like this hang around, the uglier it gets."

"It wasn't a year to postpone it," said Steven Rivelis, who lobbied for Choice PAC, an abortion-right fund-raising group. "It wasn't a year to play games anymore. It was a year for a vote."

"I think there was a tacit understanding among people on both sides that they were going to go through the process and not invest a lot of emotion," said Michael W. Burns, head of the Maryland Right to Life Political Action Committee.

"This is strictly a personal issue," said House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, who insisted on a swift vote to settle the issue -- though he cast his ballot against the bill. "It's an issue that you're not going to change a vote on one way or the other."

Last year, the sponsors of the abortion-rights bill insisted that Maryland had to enact an abortion-rights bill quickly, to protect the right to abortion here in case the United States Supreme Court overturned its 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which made abortion legal.

But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said he didn't see the urgency last year. Until the legislative session opened, he was telling anyone who asked that abortion just wasn't going to be an issue.

A Roman Catholic who was beginning to acknowledge that he would vote for abortion rights, Mr. Miller cast himself as an observer in 1990, presiding over the Senate but leaving the vote-counting and lobbying to others.

Then the filibuster locked up the Senate, and Mr. Miller found himself forced into the issue -- and being blamed for not taking charge earlier.

This year, Mr. Miller was determined not to let another filibuster stall the Senate or cause him any new political damage. He declared himself to be the leader on an abortion-rights bill months before the session even began.

In October and November, he was talking with senators to hear what kind of legislation they could support -- what provisions they would not abide, what compromises had to be included to draw enough votes to be able to shut down a filibuster.

He named three Senate leaders to sponsor a measure -- Majority Leader Clarence Blount, D-Baltimore; Deputy Majority Leader John A. Pica, D-Baltimore, and Judicial Proceedings Chairman Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil. Mr. Miller counted the votes himself and went into the debate sure of victory.

"I think the leadership recognized it was inevitable, so it was better to have it done in an orderly fashion and not have it unravel the way it had happened the year before," said Bebe Verdery, lobbyist for Planned Parenthood of Maryland. "And there was a public expectation that the bill be acted on this year."

By taking charge, Mr. Rivelis said, Mr. Miller "was delivering a message: 'This is important to me. I want it resolved.' And he put his political reputation on the line by doing that. Big, big difference" from the Senate president's stance a year ago.

Pat Kelly, lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference, which opposes abortion, agreed that the change in leadership propelled the bill. From time to time during the debate, she, like other abortion opponents, complained that Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Miller were "railroading" the measure in an effort to clear it out of the State House.

"When you have the control, when you can manipulate the system, you can accomplish almost anything," Mrs. Kelly said. "Last year they did not succeed and they learned from their mistakes."

Last year, Mr. Miller wasn't the only man in Annapolis off to the side of the abortion debate. Governor Schaefer wouldn't even say if he opposed abortion or favored keeping it legal -- and he criticized reporters for asking.

But after the primary elections last September -- elections in which abortion-rights candidates scored several important victories, the governor finally declared himself personally opposed to abortion but politically in favor of an abortion-rights bill.

That, Ms. Verdery said, also helped move the bill quickly this year.

Two weeks ago, on the day the Senate was debating the issue, former Baltimore County Senator Francis X. Kelly was watching from the gallery. One of the state's most vocal abortion opponents, Mr. Kelly was disgusted by the apparent inevitability of the bill's passage.

Last year, Mr. Kelly was on the Senate floor leading the anti-abortion filibuster, tirelessly arguing that life begins at conception, that the rights of unborn children must be protected, that the anti-abortion minority had the obligation to use every parliamentary tactic it could find to stop an abortion-rights bill.

But the filibuster cost Mr. Kelly his Senate seat. In last year's election race, abortion-rights groups poured money and volunteers into the campaign of his opponent, Janice Piccinini, who made the issue the centerpiece of her run for office. Mr. Kelly complained she was a one-issue candidate. On election day, he was trounced.

Three other anti-abortion senators lost as well, all in districts that the newly energized abortion-rights political groups had targeted.

"This was the first time [Maryland] politicians had the opportunity to see the power of the pro-choice majority in action," Mr. Rivelis said. "It made them aware that in the 1991 session they had to respond to the will of the pro-choice public."

The Maryland affiliate of the National Abortion Rights Action League spent the summer endorsing candidates and canvassing those districts to encourage voters to turn out on election day. Choice PAC, formed last spring by abortion-rights supporters who had watched the filibuster in frustration from the Senate gallery, raised about $50,000 for candidates who supported keeping abortion available. The National Organization for Women was raising money. Planned Parenthood was making nightly calls to voters, eventually numbering in the thousands, to identify those who would vote for abortion-rights candidates.

In the end, some new abortion opponents were elected to the Senate along with new abortion-rights supporters, and the balance of votes on the issue did not change greatly. But the chemistry had. Senators who a year ago took part in the filibuster now were saying they didn't believe a repeat would be useful.

"It was a tremendous gust of wind for the pro-choice legislators, who up until now felt they were alone when they took the floor," Mr. Rivelis said. "They knew they had the voters on their side. They took the message they weren't going to be intimidated anymore. They were saying, 'I'm on the side of the winners.' That makes you stronger."

Mrs. Kelly, of the Catholic Conference, disputes the abortion-rights lobby's claims of great new political power. "In the elections, I think they had success in isolated situations. They were highly successful in some areas. But so were we."

The new law will take effect July 1, unless blocked by referendum. It will 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 to save the life or health of the woman or if the fetus is abnormal.

Abortion-rights groups are jubilant. Anti-abortion leaders are disappointed, but say the issue isn't settled.

"We have the votes for a lot of things but we didn't have the votes to stop it this year. But in a few more elections, we will," Mrs. Kelly said.

"All this is is a bill that was passed and signed by the governor," Mr. Burns, of the Right to Life PAC, said. "All we have to do is elect enough people and a governor who will sign a bill and we can change it. It's not going to go away."

Sandy Banisky is a reporter for The Sun.

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