Three of the four major Democratic candidates for governor, including front-runner Parris N. Glendening, say they would lift current restrictions on taxpayer-funded abortions for poor women if elected to the state's highest office.
Mr. Glendening, the Prince George's County executive, State Sen. Mary H. Boergers of Montgomery County and Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg all pledged last week to remove the limitations on the use of state Medicaid funds to end unwanted pregnancies -- a long-standing goal of abortion rights advocates.
The three Republican hopefuls, along with the fourth Democratic aspirant, State Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski of Baltimore, said they would not attempt to change the current policy, which dates back about a dozen years.
The candidates were responding to questions from The Sun.
Medicaid is the national health care program for the poor and disabled, with most services jointly funded by the state and federal governments.
But the use of federal Medicaid funds for abortion has been sharply limited over the years. Most states now cover abortion only in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is in danger.
Maryland has a more liberal policy. The state also pays for abortions if a woman can demonstrate that continuing the pregnancy would seriously threaten her mental or physical health. But if a qualifying condition cannot be documented, the state will not pay.
Twelve states have no restrictions, and Medicaid money can be used to pay for any otherwise legal abortion.
Maryland's restrictions are contained in the state budget, prepared by the governor and enacted by the General Assembly during its annual 90-day legislative session. During his eight years in office, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has continued the practice of placing the restraints in the budget.
The next governor can move to scrap the restrictions by submitting a budget that does not include the current rules. The change would become law unless overturned by a majority of lawmakers.
Gloria A. Totten, executive director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League's Maryland chapter, said Medicaid funding was the "bottom-line issue" for her organization this year.
"We intend to bring this issue up next session," she said. "It will save us a lot of trouble if one of the Democrats who supports lifting the restrictions is elected. Then we'd just have to work to block [a vote by the legislature] to put them back in, which we're certain we can do."
The Maryland chapter plans to endorse a Democrat for governor after the Sept. 13 primary election, assuming the party's standard bearer is one of the three candidates who supports stripping the restrictions from the budget, Ms. Totten said.
"We anticipate it will be Glendening, Steinberg or Boergers," she said. "If American Joe wins the primary, we won't make an endorsement, we'll stay out of the race."
The Maryland Catholic Conference declined comment on the stances of the three Democratic candidates. Roger Stenson, executive director of Maryland Right to Life, said, "We just wish these people would stop trying to use our money to kill people's babies."
The Democrats backing the abortion rights position are unequivocal about their intentions on the Medicaid funding issue.
"Parris would seek to guarantee that all women in Maryland have the right to choose abortion regardless of income," said David Seldin, Mr. Glendening's spokesman. "The first budget that he submits will contain no restrictions on Medicaid funding of abortions."
Said Ms. Boergers, "As governor, I will submit a budget without any restrictions on Medicaid funding for abortions . . . to give poor women the exact same rights and options that middle class and wealthy women have. It will eliminate the double standard and hypocrisy."
Mr. Steinberg's spokesman, M. Hirsh Goldberg, said, "Mickey has opposed discrimination in every form and restricting access to abortions for indigent women is a form of health care discrimination. . . . He would remove the restrictions because he believes it's a form of discrimination."
The state paid for 3,230 Medicaid abortions in fiscal year 1992, the last year for which figures are available. Officials estimate the state would pay for an additional 1,600 abortions if the restrictions were lifted.
But budget analysts said during the legislative session that lifting the restrictions would not increase costs and could actually save the state money -- an estimated $2.5 million this year if efforts to change the law had succeeded.
They pegged that prediction in part to the lower cost of abortion vs. childbirth expenses routinely covered by Medicaid.
On a related matter, all seven major candidates -- even those associated with anti-abortion forces -- say they have no plans to try to reverse the state law that gives women in Maryland who can pay their own way virtually unlimited access to abortions.
That statute was enacted in 1991, petitioned to referendum in 1992, then affirmed at the polls by a margin of nearly 400,000 votes that November, a ballot box blowout that seems to have taken the punch out of the broader abortion issue in the current campaign.
Mr. Miedusiewski, though unwilling to change the Medicaid rules, pledged to protect the 1991 statute as governor. " 'Choice' is the law of the state, and any attempts to change the existing law would be vetoed," the Baltimore lawmaker said through his campaign manager, James Brochin.
"I think the people of Maryland have spoken," said Republican William S. Shepard. "I spoke in favor of a no vote, but I accept
the result of the referendum."
Mr. Shepard, the GOP's 1990 gubernatorial candidate, added, however, that he would try to modify or augment the law to ensure that women seeking abortions are provided with information on adoption and other alternatives to terminating their pregnancies.
"For the woman who has firmly made up her mind, that's one thing, but some may think again and put the child up for adoption," he said. "If someone is really for choice, let there be choice."
U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a Baltimore County Republican who has a mixed record on abortion rights but has tended to vote against them, would not try to change the law, said her spokesman, Key Kidder.
"She's on record as saying the law is the law, the voters have spoken," he said.
In a written statement, Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who normally lines up with anti-abortion forces in the legislature, said, "Although I would seek to reduce the number of abortions, I have no plans to counter the citizens' mandate as expressed in the November 1992 vote."
Like Mr. Shepard, Mrs. Sauerbrey, the GOP leader of the Maryland House, said she favors providing women considering abortions with information on adoption and other alternatives.