FREDERICK -- Diners at Ruby Tuesday were greeted this week by a grisly sight: the enormous image of the mangled half-formed skull of an aborted fetus. Blown up large, bigger than an adult, the graphic "photo" was one of more than a dozen signs held up on the sidewalk along U.S. 40.
The scene -- repeated across the region from Towson to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington -- is part of Defend Life's weeklong "Face the Truth Tour," a multistop, anti-abortion rally that aims to shock Maryland voters into changing their views on the procedure. The tour, which stopped in downtown Baltimore yesterday, ends today in Bel Air.
"We start at the ground up," said Jack Ames, a Towson engineer who founded Defend Life. "We're not going to elect a pro-life governor until the people are pro-life."
Their effort was inadvertently timely, as law enforcement officials this week charged Ocean City resident Christy Lynn Freeman, 37, with murder in the death of a pre-term baby found at her home last week; prosecutors dropped those charges yesterday, instead charging her in the death of a baby that police say she had in 2003.
But with a Democratic governor and General Assembly, and public opinion in Maryland firmly in favor of not just abortion rights but also embryonic stem cell research, the Defend Life protesters face an admittedly difficult task.
While the anti-abortion movement has seen victories at the national level of late, such as the Supreme Court upholding a so-called partial-birth abortion ban, Maryland residents remain staunchly supportive of abortion rights. Even seemingly modest proposals -- such as initiatives requiring the recording of abortion statistics or licensing of clinics -- have stalled in the legislature over the last several sessions.
The most recent victory for anti-abortion advocates came in 2005 when then-Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich signed a bill making it a felony to harm a "viable fetus," a statute that could have been tested in the Freeman case but won't be given yesterday's decision. The next year, however, voters elected Democrat Martin O'Malley, an abortion-rights Catholic, to replace Ehrlich.
As a result, even the most devoutly anti-abortion public officials sense that the time is not right to lobby Maryland voters for change. The House of Delegates and state Senate, both overwhelmingly dominated by Democrats, are run by leaders who favor abortion rights: Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr.
But the state's commitment to abortion rights is even deeper. Maryland voters, mindful that the political climate around the issue has ebbed since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, passed a law in 1991 endorsing abortion rights. The following year, voters approved a ballot referendum echoing lawmakers' support.
"I think the political climate in Maryland does not lend itself to any trend in the direction of respect for life," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an anti-abortion Eastern Shore Republican and former Senate minority leader who said he supports the Defend Life tour.
Others worry that the tactics of Defend Life only set the state's anti-abortion movement back, alienating potential supporters and further emboldening local advocates of abortion rights. They say that a divided anti-abortion community will have trouble prevailing here.
"I think there are a lot of pro-life people who would not want to stand there holding those signs," said Angela Martin, president of Maryland Right to Life. "I can only speak for myself, but I don't think it's the most effective way to reach people. I hope to reach people with a more positive approach."
Martin said she is hopeful that friendly legislators could introduce initiatives during the 2008 General Assembly session that would require informed consent from a woman seeking an abortion. In other words, she would have to be presented with material detailing the procedure before it could be performed. The group could also back an 18- or 24-hour waiting period.
Maryland Right to Life and the Defend Life activists have one approach in common -- they are looking to woo a younger generation of voters to their cause. In September, Maryland Right to Life is sponsoring a conference at the University of Maryland for anti-abortion college groups. Defend Life, meanwhile, chose a 20-year-old computer science and math major as the face of this week's tour.
"You have to show people what abortion is in order to make any headway whatsoever," said Tricia Dougherty, a student at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
In politically conservative Frederick, a city that is represented in the state legislature by Republicans, the Defend Life activists said that photographs have historically provided the impetus for social change. They likened themselves to those who fought against slavery. They wore red T-shirts that read "Abortion Kills Babies." One held a sign that said, "America's Holocaust, 50 million killed since 1973."
Several lamented that the political effort to erode Roe has so far failed. They called for a stronger grass-roots movement and said their photos -- each one more explicit than the one before it -- have the potential to inform, and change hearts.
As they stood there, though, for more than an hour along a busy commercial thoroughfare dotted with the ubiquitous suburban businesses that line streets across the country, only a few drivers honked their approval.
"I consider it a desperation attempt," said John Nugent, president and chief executive officere of Planned Parenthood of Maryland. "They've lost the discussion on a logic, intellectual basis so they use distorted, graphic images to try to get at the emotions of individuals."