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Ehrlich direction on abortion unclear

DURING the campaign, Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was asked about his membership on the advisory board of Republicans for Choice, a national abortion-rights group headquartered in suburban Washington.

His response was a hearty laugh. Yes, he explained, he was a member but he couldn't recall attending any meetings.

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In fact, Ehrlich continued, he wasn't comfortable being tagged pro-choice. "That's a label the press has attached," the fourth-term congressman from Baltimore County said. "But we vote on abortion in about 15 different ways. I guess the word 'independent' would come to mind more."

So, the question remains: Which side will Ehrlich support as governor, if he chooses to play a role at all?

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Ehrlich's personal feelings are clear. While he backs some abortion rights, he opposes public funding of abortions on grounds that to fund the procedure is to encourage it - and he doesn't think government should play such a role. He supports banning a late-term procedure critics call "partial-birth abortion."

Ehrlich has long left no doubt that he would sign a "partial-birth abortion" ban if the General Assembly presents him one. And, because the budget cannot be vetoed, he would go along if the Assembly stripped out funds used on abortions for the poor under Medicaid.

But, less than a month from his first legislative session as governor, advocates on both sides say the central question - yet to be answered - is whether Ehrlich feels passionately enough about abortion to expend political capital. Will he use the power of his office to lobby, even bargain, as governors often do? Or will Ehrlich, chief executive of a state that has been supportive of safeguarding the procedure, opt not to be a player?

In 1992, Maryland voters passed a referendum intended to keep most abortions legal in the state even if the Supreme Court overturned its landmark Roe vs. Wade ruling of 1973.

Ehrlich described himself at times during the campaign as "pro-choice." He said he wouldn't seek to undo a state policy under which 3,324 women received Medicaid-funded abortions last year. Most qualified under language - considered too liberal by Ehrlich - permitting funding in cases where a continued pregnancy could seriously threaten the woman's mental health.

Abortion-rights leaders said Ehrlich's rhetoric contained the clear suggestion that he would hold the line on abortion protections. "He made it seem like he would be strongly in line with the pro-choice majority in Maryland," said Nancy C. Lineman, executive director of the Maryland affiliate of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

With Ehrlich's election, Lineman knows the extent of participation from the governor's office could be critical to the fate of expected battles on, among other issues, "partial-birth abortions" and a planned measure to require parental consent for abortions by minors.

"The votes are so close that the involvement of the second floor [governor's office] could push them across," said Richard J. Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, the public-policy arm of the three Roman Catholic regions serving Maryland.

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During the campaign, conference officials met with Ehrlich about their agenda - including their opposition to abortion and the death penalty and possible cutbacks in programs aiding the poor - and plan to do so again.

Dowling said the anti-abortion strategy must be to build a solid legislative coalition so the new governor "doesn't feel he's sticking his neck out. I would understand his reluctance to go forward absent the assurance that he's going to win."

Since the election, Ehrlich hasn't committed to taking any action on behalf of legislators' anti-abortion agenda except for signing bills he agrees with.

Anti-abortion legislators have lost some close votes in recent years. In the last session, Democratic Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. of Baltimore County and others sought to prohibit the state from funding abortions for women who have had one or more of the procedures through Medicaid, unless their health was at risk. One of his proposals failed by one vote. In 1999, legislation to outlaw "partial-birth abortions" passed the Senate, but failed in the House.

Republican Sen. Larry E. Haines of Carroll County, a sponsor of the 1999 bill, said that with the coming of the state's first GOP governor since Spiro T. Agnew, the timing may be right to try again. "When Bob Ehrlich was considering running, people said, 'How can you support him, he's pro-choice?'" Haines said. "But he was very clear with me on partial-birth abortion that he'd sign it."

Still, Haines said he won't introduce the measure until conferring with Ehrlich. Having a committed governor on your side can provide leverage. For example, a governor can hold out the promise of funding for pet projects in supplemental budgets as the session unfolds.

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"A governor can have quite a bit of influence," Haines said.

How much Ehrlich chooses to exercise on abortion remains to be seen.


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