Abortion foes start looking to future


For the first time in a long time, conservatives planning to converge on Annapolis for a yearly anti-abortion rally feel as if they're riding momentum's tide into town.

With two new possible allies on the Supreme Court and a host of mobilizing issues before state lawmakers, abortion opponents say the balance -- even in the Democratic stronghold of Maryland -- might be shifting their way.

Organizers are expecting a heavy turnout for tomorrow's March for Life, which they have optimistically themed "Maryland without Roe." Commercials began running last week on area radio stations to spread word of the 27th annual event.

"It's looking more and more like America is a pro-life nation," said Douglas Stiegler, executive director of the Family Protection Lobby, one of the sponsors of the rally. "It's becoming more obvious that killing babies is not a good pastime."

After President Bush's choices of conservatives Samuel A. Alito Jr. and John G. Roberts Jr. to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court, many on both sides of the issue are predicting an erosion of abortion rights allowed under Roe v. Wade.

Conservative advocacy groups in Maryland assume the precedent will be overturned -- and they're planning how to handle the reverberations here at home.

"The day is coming when Roe is going to end, and at that time, the job just starts," said Stephen Peroutka, chairman of the National Pro-Life Action Center and keynote speaker at the march.

However, many expect that the day -- if it comes at all -- is a long way away in Maryland.

State Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld, a Montgomery County Democrat, said she has noticed the opposition's recent "sense of empowerment," something she traces to Bush's election.

But she said enthusiasm can get them only so far in this state.

"While it may look like there are a lot of [anti-abortion] people because they are loud and boisterous and use in-your-face tactics," Grosfeld said, "the reality is Maryland is and always will be a pro-choice state.

"They attempt to paint a picture so utterly false, but it's effective in trying to manipulate the way people think about the matter of choice."

Some abortion opponents acknowledge that Maryland might not be as ready to embrace their cause as other regions of the nation.

Nancy Fortier, associate director for the Respect for Life Department of the Maryland Catholic Conference, said that though there could be a seismic shift in the national abortion scenario, anti-abortion Marylanders would be smart to hold their applause.

"We've got a lot of people here who don't have a problem with killing a child in the process of being born," she said. "Maryland, I think, will be slow to wake up."

If the high court did overturn Roe, abortion across the country would not become instantly illegal. Rather, states would get the power to make their own laws regulating the procedure.

To groom sympathetic politicians and cultivate stricter laws, it's not too early to begin an intense education campaign, Peroutka said.

"The pro-life people have to be able to articulate the pro-life argument -- not just to people like Christians and Catholics who already buy the argument, but to non-believers, as well as people who don't know anything about abortion," he said.

And the message, he added, should go something like this: "Nobody wants to kill babies. Everybody is for babies." After they get that, he said, "Then you take it a step further."

Further buoying abortion opponents are a host of issues under consideration by the General Assembly that have rallied their supporters.

Crowds have already stormed Annapolis to make their voices heard on gay marriage this year, prompted by a recent judicial ruling. The issue of when life begins and how it can be ended permeates the debate over whether to use public money for research on embryonic stem cells -- a debate lawmakers will spend the coming week immersed in.

A Grosfeld bill would allow pharmacists to dispense emergency contraception without a prescription, a practice critics equate to abortion.

With his colleagues working to block the embryonic stem cell legislation, Ken Ong, administrative director for Maryland Right to Life, said he feels energized.

"It's a good time right now," he said, "with the stuff in the Supreme Court and all the other legislative things going on."

In a commercial, now playing on WBAL and other radio stations, a sweeping score builds as a woman's solemn voice intones, "It's time to prepare for a Maryland without Roe."

Organizers of tomorrow's candlelight march expect to invigorate the crowd with a visit from the brother of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman whose feeding tube was removed last year after she spent 15 years in a vegetative state.

But Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the Republican whip from Southern Maryland and an abortion opponent, is holding off on any premature celebration.

O'Donnell detects movement on the issue, but it's slight, he said, and something that might be all but imperceptible in a liberal state like Maryland.

"I don't have great expectations," he said. "Though things might not change dramatically, it's important to keep fighting."


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