In what may be one of the closest and most controversial votes of this year's legislative session, the House of Delegates is expected to decide today whether to lift 15-year-old restrictions on when tax dollars may finance abortions for poor women on Medicaid.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening, fulfilling a campaign promise, removed the restrictions from the budget he submitted to the legislature in January, and the governor is lobbying hard to keep them off the books.
But anti-abortion lawmakers say they hope to get the 71-vote majority needed in the House to put the restrictions back. Both sides say the vote is too close to call.
The vote will mark the first time the new legislature has gone on record on the abortion issue. It also will be an early test of the governor's ability to get his way on a substantive policy issue for which he and his staff have lobbied aggressively.
"I feel very strongly about this. We will fight for it," Mr. Glendening told cheering abortion-rights advocates at a rally outside the State House Monday night. "I think we will prevail this year, but make no mistake: We will push every single year until we prevail."
Delegates who support abortion rights concede that they have lost strength as a result of November's elections. They are hoping that a strong effort by the governor, including telephone calls and one-on-one meetings with legislators in his office, will persuade a majority of the House to let the restrictions lapse.
Their argument is that the abortion rights of Medicaid recipients should be the same as those for Maryland women who can afford to pay for the procedure themselves.
"I hear people talking about choice, but choice ought to be real. Choice ought not be an economic issue," the governor said.
Abortion opponents say taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize abortions, even in a state where voters in 1992 ratified a law granting women broad access to abortion.
"While the citizens of Maryland did [ratify the abortion law,] they look at this as a whole different issue," said Pat Kelly, a lobbyist on the abortion issue for the Maryland Catholic Conference. "We're not talking about access, but funding. People nationally and in Maryland do not want to see their tax money used for abortion."
George W. Owings III, a Calvert County Democrat who will be the floor leader for the anti-abortion forces, said the strategy will be simple. "All we're going to attempt to do is restore the language," he said, referring to the current restrictions. "There will be no surprises, no other attempts," he said.
Restrictions on when Medicaid funds may be used to pay for abortions were put on the books in Maryland in 1979, then modified in 1980. They allow Medicaid to pay for an abortion only if the mother's life is in danger, her pregnancy is the result of reported rape or incest, her physical or mental health is seriously threatened, or the fetus suffers from severe abnormality.
Action on the abortion issue is expected to be the final vote taken by the House this afternoon on more than 100 amendments to the governor's proposed $14.3 billion state budget for fiscal 1996, which begins July 1.
Once the House completes action, the budget will move to the Senate, where fights over spending cuts and the abortion restrictions will be repeated.
The House version of the spending plan, approved Friday night by the Appropriations Committee, includes a 2 percent pay raise for state employees and $110 million for school construction and renovations. It also contains a $150 million surplus, which is being set aside to offset expected cuts in federal aid.
The House panel killed several of the governor's spending initiatives, including his proposal for $20 million in crime-fighting grants for Baltimore and for Montgomery and Prince George's counties. The programs were deleted largely because lawmakers objected to paying for them with surplus money in the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund.
Although Republicans may use the budget debate to press for deeper spending reductions or an income tax cut, none of the amendments is likely to generate the same level of emotion as the abortion issue.
Mr. Owings said the restrictions that have been in the law since 1980 represent a compromise that neither abortion opponents nor abortion rights advocates like -- in his view, precisely what a compromise should be.
Abortion opponents say that despite the restrictions, nearly 3,000 women on Medicaid received abortions in 1993 and hundreds more will seek abortions if the restrictions are lifted.
"It is important to restore the [restrictions], because otherwise we will be granting a carte blanche to the Medicaid population to receive abortions for no reason or any reason," Ms. Kelly said.
Abortion rights advocates say the restrictions already have reduced the number of Medicaid-funded abortions by half since 1978, a statistic they say proves that poor women are treated differently than women who can afford to pay for an abortion.
Moreover, they say, the abortions Medicaid does cover are costly and dangerous. By the time necessary approvals are obtained, they note, women usually are in their second trimester of pregnancy. As a result, the abortions must be performed in hospitals rather than in less expensive clinics.
The Department of Fiscal Services has estimated that repealing the restrictions would result in about 1,600 more abortions annually. But it also predicted that the state would save $2.4 million next year and $7.3 million the next year if the restrictions were lifted. The figures reflect the lower cost of abortions performed in clinics and during the first three months of pregnancy.
ABORTION IN MARYLAND
Gov. Parris N. Glendening has proposed lifting restrictions on when state tax dollars may be used to pay for abortions for poor women. Those restrictions, in effect since 1980, allow the state's Medicaid program to pay for an abortion only in one or more of the following conditions:
* The mother's life is in danger.
* Her pregnancy is the result of reported rape or incest.
* Her physical health or mental health is seriously threatened.
* The fetus suffers from severe abnormality.
Abortion is more widely available in Maryland for women who can afford to pay. The state's abortion law, ratified by voters in 1992, provides that:
* Abortions must be performed by a licensed physician.
* With some exceptions, the physician must notify a parent of an unmarried minor before the abortion.
* Before a fetus is viable, the state may not intervene in a woman's decision to terminate a pregnancy.
* After viability, the state may prohibit abortion except to save the mother's life, or if the fetus is affected by severe abnormality or deformity.