Morning-after pill purchase wins approval from delegates

A bill that some say would reduce the number of abortions - and that opponents argue would encourage greater promiscuity and sexually transmitted diseases among young women - narrowly passed the Maryland House of Delegates yesterday.

In a 71-66 vote, the House authorized pharmacists to sell over-the-counter emergency contraception - the so-called morning-after pill - to prevent pregnancy. The bill needed a minimum of 71 votes to pass.

"This bill is about abortion," said Del. John Adams Hurson, the chairman of the House Health and Governmental Operations Committee. "It's about having less of them."

The Montgomery County Democrat said the number of abortions in the United States has gone down since 1994, when emergency contraception became available.

He said over-the-counter emergency contraception is available in three other states - Alaska, Washington and California - and in 27 other countries.

A similar bill is expected to be voted on this week in the Senate's Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has not yet taken a position on the legislation, spokesman Henry Fawell said.

Those who oppose it said yesterday that they worried mostly about the medical and moral consequences of distributing the drugs to minors and about making it easier for them to be sexually active. One delegate argued that it could keep rape victims from going to the emergency room and filing charges against an attacker.

"This really is bad medical policy," said another delegate, Gail H. Bates, a Howard County Republican. "It's being couched as pro-life vs. pro-choice. But it's anti-woman as far as I can see. ... Taking the doctor out of the equation here would not be a good thing."

Last week, the House held an emotional debate when one delegate tried to remove $2.5 million earmarked in the state budgetfor Medicaid-funded abortions for poor women. Meanwhile, a bill to make it more difficult to bypass the state's parental notification laws to get an abortion appears stalled in committee.

Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat, wondered whether a 14-year-old girl can go to a pharmacy, say she has had unprotected sex and receive a dose of pregnancy prevention drugs. "Generally speaking, I think the answer is yes," Hurson replied.

Burns said he thinks parents need to teach their children about the virtues of abstinence.

Hurson said a 15-year-old girl testified at the hearing before his committee that everyone in her school is sexually active. "I wish that weren't so," Hurson said.

"I'd like to make sure they're not getting pregnant in the meantime while we're all teaching them not to be sexually active," Hurson said.

Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat, said the debate shouldn't be focused on the youngest recipients. "Do not be fooled that it's girls who are using this," she said. "It's women."

"You cannot legislate morality," Del. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, a Baltimore County Democrat, told her colleagues. "Keep that in mind."

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