An anti-abortion group's legal battle to revise the Maryland referendum question on a new abortion law ended in defeat yesterday as the state Court of Appeals ruled that the attorney general's summary will be the one that appears on the November ballot.
"Obviously, we're disappointed," said Ellen Curro, president and executive director of the Vote kNOw Coalition, which is leading the campaign against the abortion-rights law. "It makes our job, in terms of educating voters about this bill, much bigger."
The law that goes before Maryland voters in November was passed by the legislature in February 1991 and was designed to keep most abortions here legal. But it was blocked from taking effect when abortion opponents petitioned it to referendum.
The Vote kNOw Coalition had charged that the attorney general's wording, limited for space reasons to 100 words, was obtuse and misleading. Last week, an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge agreed and ordered that the language be rewritten.
But the state appealed and in a speedily scheduled hearing the seven judges of the Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case Tuesday in Annapolis. Less than 24 hours later, Maryland's highest court issued an order reversing the Circuit Court's ruling and denying Vote kNOw's request for a new version of the ballot question.
Time was short. All language must be sent to local election boards by Tuesday for inclusion on the Nov. 3 ballot.
Groups on both sides of the political fight over the abortion-rights law say that they believe that some voters make up their minds based on the wording they read when they enter the voting booth.
Public-opinion researchers agree. Language "can make a big difference in the outcome of the election," said Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Political Media Research, based in Columbia. His firm, which has conducted polls on referendums around the country, has found that "if people are confused by the language, they vote 'no' because they want to keep the status quo.
Those first two or three lines [of a ballot question] are probably worth 12 or 15 percentage points."
But most ballot questions address drier issues, such as government spending, Mr. Coker said. And abortion, which draws intense, emotional interest, is not easily compared to the average referendum issue, he said. "In an abortion referendum, it all comes down to which side does a better job of educating voters about what the question means."
After the ruling, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said he was "very satisfied." He and his aides, in an unprecedented process, had prepared two earlier drafts of the ballot language and offered them for comment to groups both for and against the bill. Mr. Curran said the court order "showed that the process we used was a fair one, and, most importantly, that the language was not misleading. We looked at this strictly from a legal, constitutional standpoint and did our job trying to write it objectively, not tilting it one way or the other."
Mr. Curran's version begins with a clause that states the general intent of the law, "to prohibit state interference with woman's abortion decision before fetus is viable."
But the Vote kNOw Coalition argued that the law, because it spans several sections of the state code, begins not with a general statement but with a provision on notice to parents of minors who seek abortions. Parental notice, the group said, should, therefore, lead the summary. And other clauses should be rewritten to make them clearer, Vote kNOw said.
Supporters of the new law, however, contended that voters looking for a ballot issue on abortion rights could be confused by a question that begins with the parental-notice clause.
"I think the victory here is really for voters," said Stacie Spector, campaign manager of Maryland for Choice, which is organizing support for the law.
"This assures that voters will understand the essence of the bill: to keep government out of the private lives of voters. It's important the first line convey what the law is about."
Ms. Spector and Ms. Curro said both sides must now work to explain the fine points of the law to voters.
"We've got 10 1/2 weeks to pull out all the stops and educate the voters," said Ms. Curro.
HOW LAW WILL APPEAR ON BALLOT
Revises Maryland's abortion law to prohibit state interference with woman's abortion decision before fetus is viable, or, under certain conditions, at any time and to provide certain exceptions to the requirement that a physician notify an unmarried minor's parent or guardian prior to minor's abortion; repeals pre-abortion information requirements about abortion alternatives; repeals some, and clarifies other, provisions related abortion referral; requires that abortions be performed by licensed physicians; provides good-faith immunity under certain conditions to physicians performing abortions; authorizes State to adopt abortion regulations; repeals certain penalty and disciplinary provisions related to the performance of abortions.