Abortion and Medicaid


Nothing livens up a legislative session more than a debate on abortion.

To his credit, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has guaranteed a furious round of lobbying and floor debate in the General Assembly by crafting a budget that does away with restrictions on Medicaid-funded abortions. Those restrictions, which have been in effect since 1980, allow Medicaid to pay for abortions only in cases where the mother's life or health is seriously threatened, or in cases where pregnancy results from rape or incest or when the fetus is deformed.

Many Marylanders believe abortion is a grave moral wrong. We respect their concerns. But we believe that, for some women in some circumstances, abortion is the better of bad choices. This belief -- that making abortion illegal produces even worse choices -- holds true regardless of the woman's economic status. If abortion is legal, as it is and should be, its availability should not hinge on a woman's economic status.

More pertinent to the current political climate is the fact that restrictions on abortions for poor women further complicate the mixed messages of welfare reform.

Last year, the General Assembly had the courage to reject a "family cap" proposal that would have denied an increase in benefits to women who had another child after entering the welfare system -- because then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer refused to lift Medicaid restrictions on abortions. Mr. Schaefer's plan would have put poor women in a curious plight: They would have been punished for having a child, while also being denied access to abortions.

It is self-evident that abortion marks the end of a potential human life. Every embryo and fetus is alive, unique and distinctly human -- a description that also fits every human sperm and every unfertilized egg.

Yet in this debate words matter, and in the abortion debate it is clearly imprecise -- and inflammatory -- to describe a first-trimester fetus as a "baby" and an early abortion as first-degree murder. This is the kind of rhetoric that inspires anti-abortion terrorism.

But for those who do worry about late-term abortions, there is another consideration in the Medicaid funding debate: The current restrictions have produced a decline in the overall number of Medicaid abortions, but an increase in the number of those done in the second trimester of pregnancy, when the fetus really does begin to resemble those pictures the anti-abortion protesters like to wave at passersby.

That's why lifting Medicaid restrictions is not only good health-care policy, but also makes fiscal sense, since later-term abortions cost far more than early procedures.

The debate today in the House of Delegates will be as raucous as these ideological battles always are. This time, we hope fairness prevails.

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