Supporters of Maryland's new abortion law warned yesterday that if the statute should fail at referendum, Maryland women would move a step closer to the days of back-alley abortions, with the accompanying risks of infection and death.
But a spokeswoman for the Vote kNOw Coalition, which is leading the campaign to defeat the law, called the contention "hysterical and irrelevant."
Frederica Mathewes-Green of Vote kNOw said that reports that large numbers of women died of illegal abortions are "an urban myth."
"It's something people believe because it's repeated," Ms. Mathewes-Green said. "There are really no facts to support it."
But, at a news conference called yesterday by Maryland for Choice, Dr. J. Courtland Robinson recounted how he cared for women who had hysterectomies or kidney failure or died because of illegal abortions.
Dr. Robinson, who is on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and has practiced obstetrics and gynecology for 40 years, said he routinely saw women suffering the effects of illegal abortions while he was working at a New York City hospital.
He recalled having to tell families or boyfriends, "I'm sorry. We couldn't keep her going." And he said he remembers representatives of the New York district attorney's office coming to his hospital to interrogate women suspected of having had illegal abortions.
Also at yesterday's news conference was Regi Elion, who in 1966, "young and scared," found she was pregnant. With the help of a friend, she found someone who arranged an illegal abortion for $350.
She said she was blindfolded and driven to a building, where she was taken to "a walk-in closet." She was told the man was a doctor. She learned later he was not.
"I don't want anyone else to be in a walk-in closet having an abortion," Ms. Elion said.
"I'm shocked we're still discussing this in 1992."
Former U.S. Rep. Parren J. Mitchell, a Baltimore Democrat, recalled his days as a probation officer in the Baltimore court system, when he and his colleagues often encountered women suffering from infections after illegal abortions.
"They were unsafe. They were dirty. They were back-alley abortions. They were wrong," Mr. Mitchell said.
But Ms. Mathewes-Green, at the Vote kNOw Coalition, said the memories are exaggerated. After the development of antibiotics, she said, the number of deaths from illegal abortions dropped significantly. In 1970, '71 and '72, she added, no deaths from illegal abortions were reported to the state health department.
The law up for referendum would keep most abortions legal even if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision.
Ms. Mathewes-Green said that, even if voters reject the law at the polls next month, abortion will not be restricted in Maryland unless the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade and a 1968 law -- unconstitutional since 1973 -- is again enforced.
"There's just level after level [of laws] before abortion is illegal," she said.