The Question of Question 6: Maryland’s 1992 Abortion Referendum

[Human Life Review, Spring 1993]

“Are you sure?”

The question caught me off guard. I had been rattling on to my friend Mark Crutcher about the terrible abortion law just passed by the Maryland legislature, the appalling anti-woman provisions, the consternation of the pro-life community, and had wound up with the assertion that we wanted to bring it to referendum.

“Well, of course we’re sure,” I said. “It’s a terrible bill. Citizens should have a chance to vote on it.”

Mark drew a deep breath. “Referenda are tricky,” he said. “They’re unbelievably expensive. Money is drained off that might be more effectively spent elsewhere. And if you lose, it’s a devastating blow to morale, not just in your state but across the country. My advice is, if there’s anyway you can avoid it, don’t have a referendum. There are a lot safer, more effective ways to spend the time and energy it would require.”

I was nonplussed. The truth was, the referendum momentum was already rolling. Signatures were pouring in, and at the end of June, 1991 we would present the state with the largest number every gathered for any referendum in state history—over four times the required amount.

Although I held Mark in the high esteem, I had to believe he was off base this time. The marketing/strategy genius, whose Life Activist Seminars across the country were turning out crack troops every week, just didn’t understand: our referendum was different.

But his words reminded me, uneasily, of a similar conversation with my friend Elaine, a hardworking pro-life lobbyist. Her usual gentle demeanor gave way to strongly worded protest when the topic of the Maryland referendum came up: the money, the energy, the risk of loss—how much better to put that money and energy into electing pro-life legislators. Besides, “even if you win, you’re not going to save any babies.”

But this was, in fact, the very reason why I felt sure our referendum could succeed. Referenda initiated by pro-life forces in other states were usually aimed at restricting abortion. But we were fighting to keep the status quo: abortion legal throughout pregnancy for any reason, with $3 million worth of tax-funded abortions a year. We were fighting to keep this abysmal situation because, hard as it is to believe, the new law made things worse.

Rumors abounded that the law, Senate Bill 162, was not written by the state abortion-rights lobby, but by the National Abortion Federation itself—the guild of abortion businesspeople. The law was a “Businessman’s Special,” which tampered with existing abortion law in a spectrum of ways to benefit the industry, while actually reducing information and protection to women.

Where we had no parental involvement law, SB 162 pretended to give us one. However, the physician need not notify a parent if he thinks the minor is mature enough to give her own consent, and he cannot be sued for his decision not to notify (a protection he did not previously enjoy). A “liberalized” abortion law from the late 60’s, unenforceable since Roe v. Wade, was repealed. And where we presently had no limitations on abortion, SB 162 specified that the state could not pass any limitations in the future. Potential legislation restricting third-trimester abortions was permitted, but could not penalize a doctor for deciding to do any abortion.

Then there were the repeals. The law against profit-making abortion counseling businesses was repealed. The law against receiving kickbacks for abortion referrals was repealed. Our mild Informed Consent law, which gave an abortion customer a pamphlet listing resources for continuing her pregnancy, was repealed. Even the law guaranteeing medical professionals freedom of conscience not to make abortion referrals was repealed; a subsequent outcry led to that law’s reinstatement in a weakened form.

On first reading the law, therefore, I felt a mixture of revulsion and glee. How could it be that bad? On the other hand, thank goodness they made it so unbelievably bad! They went too far. The bill was a fine example of hubris, swaggering pride going before a fall. Even abortion advocates can’t defend this law, I thought; when we expose what it really says, we’ll have a pretty clear path to victory.

Now nearly two years have passed since I first held SB 162 in my hands. Outside my window snowflakes swirl. All the work—the papers, memos, ad scripts, bumperstickers, videotapes, booklets—are obsolete and discarded, perhaps sleeping today in landfills under the snow. Our staff of nearly 30 is scattered. We lost big: 39%-61%, at a cost of $2.5 million. It was a sobering experience and an expensive education, but I learned some things I didn’t know before.

1. When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way.

I believed we would win right up until midnight election night—that the details about the bill were so noxious even so-called “pro-choicers” would feel too uneasy to vote for it. After all, voters have to like the entire package to vote for it, and any one of the rotten elements could push a them over the line to no. I repeated throughout the campaign: “We have the easy job. All we have to do is tell the truth about the law. Our opponents have to cover it up until November. And that won’t be easy to do.”

But I was reading the roadmap upside down. This was not a referendum on the details and effects of a particular law; it was a referendum on which gang you belong to—the Jets versus the Sharks. While we focused on the specifics of the law, our opponents claimed that that was just an attempt to confuse people; the issue was simply that “anti-choice” people should vote against the law and “pro-choice” people should vote for it. (One of their leaders worried in print that those who listened to our arguments might “not know how they’re supposed to vote.”)

For our opponents, the sole point of the bill was repeal of an old abortion law that had been invalidated by Roe v. Wade. It was an example of the late 60’s wave of “liberalized” abortion laws that had swept the country, allowing abortion until 6 months for many reasons, specifically including mental health. Though currently unenforceable, it would spring to life if Roe were ever overruled.

But Roe seemed firmly entrenched after the Casey decision, and a state Attorney General’s opinion suggested that, even if Roe did ever fall, the penalties of the old law might not be zealously enforced. Even if they were, the law itself presented abortion businesspeople with inviting loopholes. This old law did not look to us to be a particular prize. But that didn’t stop our opponents from insisting that women would die in the streets if the referendum failed to pass. (Although state health department statistics showed that, during the pre-Roe years the law was in force, women weren’t dying of illegal abortion.)

I believed this to be a very silly strategy on their part. Certainly people were intelligent enough to take a hard look at the way a pending law would actually affect their lives. A vote against the referred law would preserve the status quo, which already allowed unlimited abortion. The new law had nothing to do with abortion rights—in fact, it limited women’s rights to be informed and protected from abortion profiteers.

By the end of the campaign, we were averaging several calls a day from people saying, “I’m pro-choice, but I’m worried about some parts of this bill…” On the day before the election, it looked like a squeaker; previous referenda had suggested that the “opposed” position gathers most of the undecided vote, so we thought we had a 50-50 chance of winning.

But on election day our opponents mustered 5 or 6 partisans at each polling place, shouting helpfully, “A vote FOR choice is a vote FOR Question 6.” At least one caller, the day after the vote, said that that was what had swayed her. She had planned to vote against the law, but in the booth she felt confused—“I am pro-choice, I guess I should vote for this.” And she did.

The biggest lesson I gained from the campaign is that the culture war is more advanced than I thought. The divisions are so deep that unbiased thought on this issue is no longer likely. Our opponent was right: it was a matter of people being told how they were supposed to vote. They knew which was the fashionable label they were supposed to wear, and just needed help matching it with the correct item in the voting booth. Jets and Sharks, choose your colors; further facts would only confuse you.

2. Media consensus: Pro-lifers have cooties.

I expected that the media would enjoy the challenge of this complex law and the opportunity to dig into its details and effects. With few exceptions I found that instead that we prolifers were under the microscope. Our assertions were regarded with deep suspicion: we were the anti-choice fanatics, and so anything we said must be examined for trickery. When our presentation of flaws in the bill appeared convincing it elicited, not interest, but deep discomfort.

There seemed to be a longing to find something wrong with our arguments. I recall sitting in a radio studio watching the host’s face change like a day in March; whenever I made a point, it would sag with misery, and he would look pleadingly at my opponent. She would cheerfully dismiss my charges with ad hominem flippancy: these anti-choice extremists will stop at nothing, etc. Sheer gratitude would spread across his face like the dawn, and he would turn back to me with renewed courage.

When we did succeed in bringing attention to the dangerous elements of the law, there seemed to be an urgent need to discredit us and gloss over the law’s effects. An example, from this very complex law, would be the repeal of the kickbacks provision. We harped on this element, since it was so indefensible and was clearly found in the text of the bill. For awhile our charge was ignored, then it was publicized with the rejoinder: another section of the Maryland code already makes all medical kickbacks illegal. This law can be repealed because it’s reduplicative. Those anti-choice fanatics misrepresented the bill; they are lying and trying to confuse people, presenting themselves as interested in women’s rights, when all they want is to make sure women die, etc.

Stay with me now; it gets thick here. Of course, we knew about that other section of the law, and could cite chapter and verse for it. It was an old law, already in effect when the provision specifically against abortion kickbacks was passed (so the Legislature must have had some reason for thinking it necessary). In fact, the previous law only applied to licensed medical professionals, and carried no fine—just a possible loss of license after medical board review. If you weren’t a doctor or nurse you had no license to lose, so that in that case the law was meaningless. On the other hand, the law being repealed applied to everyone, and carried real fines: $5000 or a year in prison.

But how could non-doctors be involved in kickbacks? Simple. We had the clippings from the Chicago Sun-Times 1978 expose to prove it: entrepreneurs set up abortion “counseling” centers that charged women up to $150 for their advice—but workers on the phone lines were told that their job was to sell abortions and dissuade other choices. These “counselors” directed women to abortion clinics with which they had prior arrangements, and the clinics would pay the referral center up to $60 per customer.

The “counselor” is not a licensed doctor; the abortion clinic owner is not necessarily a doctor; the clinic itself doesn’t even have a license in our state. If the abortionist is, as usual, a per-diem worker and keeps his nose out of the deal, and the other participants are not licensed medical professionals, abortion kickbacks would become perfectly legal—that is, once the referendum passed and the old law was repealed. But this was a tennis game with only two swings. We brought the charge, our opponents refuted it, and that was the end of the discussion; our followup rebuttal was never aired. Worried friends would call me: “I read in the paper that—is it true? You guys lied about the law?” A lot of clucking ensued about our deceptive ways. The Baltimore Sun did a story on this new anti-abortion strategy of using women’s rights language instead of talking about making abortion illegal. The implication that this was a slimy subterfuge was magically turned into a fact by virtue of appearing in print, and clips of the article were waved at me in many a TV and radio station for long after.

Likewise, the Washington Post editorialized that anti-choicers have a right to their beliefs, but to cover up their real goal, and pretend they’re interested in women’s rights, and then lie about the bill at issue, was just despicable.

Yet when my boss Ellen Curro and I went in to the Post to talk with the author of this editorial, she surprised us by starting the conversation with: “By the way, I agree with you on parental notification. No parent is ever going to be notified under this bill.” In the course of the conversation she referred twice to how angry the black editors were over the repeal of the Information Act; they found the action patronizing and insensitive, and protested that “they think our women can’t handle the information.” Ellen and I looked at each other in surprise; this person who had just blasted us in print was making all our points for us.

We entered into the lengthy explanation of the kickbacks provision, and at the end she studied us carefully. “If what you are saying is true,” she said, “and there really is a danger of this practice occuring, then once the referendum passes we will support you in getting the legislature to fix this.” “But what possible motivation would they have to change something that’s just been affirmed at the ballot box?” I protested. But she was immovable. The law must pass, so that the old law can be repealed. No matter how bad the other elements of the package, we just have to look the other way. We must insure abortion rights.

Naively, I had thought that the media would be interested in the facts of the issue. I found instead that gang allegiance precedes all else. The pro-life label made me “other,” a suspicious, untrustworthy character, and tarnished my words before I spoke them. The corollary to the first lesson, then, is: You’re either a Jet or a Shark—and Sharks have cooties.

3. Barrier of a common cause

In every movement there is tension between the purists and pragmatists, and this tension has been evident in the pro-life movement, at varying intensity, from the beginning. It emerged again in the course of the Maryland campaign when the Rescue community felt that our referendum team was pandering to liberals in our emphasis on the women’s rights/consumer rights aspect of the bill. They felt that there was no sense having a referendum if we didn’t focus on the evils of abortion itself. The Committee Against Radical Abortion Laws formed to offer another front against the bill, and chose as their focus the very weak prohibitions against third-trimester abortions in the new law. To this end they distributed doorknob hangers showing a serene, intact late-abortion baby, which caused considerable media horror.

The problem with this approach, in our mind, was that it implied that a vote against Question 6 would somehow stop third trimester abortions. On the contrary, voting against it would preserve a status quo in which there had not been any prohibitions against any abortion at any point in pregnancy for twenty years. We were leery of giving pro-lifers the false hope that this was their big chance to save some babies, when (as Elaine had pointed out) no such thing was possible in this referendum.

There was also the difficulty of making a blanket charge, as their literature did, that “This law allows abortion up until the minute before birth.” A quick read of the law seemed to show that third trimester abortions were restricted to hard cases, so it appeared that this charge was an outright lie. A more careful reading revealed that the loopholes were voluminous and that late abortion was virtually unrestricted—but in this game where each side gets only one swing, you might not get a chance to explain.

The Rescue community continued to criticize our referendum team for our reticence throughout the campaign. I see from their post-election December newsletter that they still aren’t ready to let up.

Ironically, our political opponents tried throughout the campaign to link us with Rescue, apparently unaware that we were in Rescue’s bad graces. Toward the end of the campaign I began hearing the charge that we were funded by Operation Rescue, which was good for a laugh around the office. But they found their evidence: when the donor lists were published, one out-of-state Operation Rescue chapter had sent us $25. The pertinent page was blown up for an alarming TV commercial, which proved once and for all what crazed radicals we were.

4. You never know who your friends aren’t.

Our first TV commercial was going to be a humdinger: Dr. Ben Carson, the internationally famous pediatric neurosurgeon, had agreed to appear. Dr. Carson, besides being Johns Hopkins Hospital’s favorite son, was well known in evangelical circles for his inspirational/autobiographical books, and guested on the 700 Club. Was he pro-life? Well, apparently sort of a new pro-lifer. But that didn’t matter. We’d always said, you don’t have to be pro-life to hate this law.

After Dr. Carson agreed to do the spot, the faxes were busy with copies of the law, draft scripts, and revisions. We went over the points we wanted to make about this complex law in that short 30-second span, and rewrote the ad several times till it matched the doctor’s gentle, laid-back manner. After a week of such exchanges, we met at a cavernous soundstage to tape the spot. For some thirty takes, this soft-spoken black doctor sat on a stool on the simple set and repeated the words he had helped compose.

For ten days his ad ran, and we prayed for him, aware that he must be taking plenty of heat from his generally-liberal colleagues. Then, on the day the ad was due to be replaced with our second spot, we heard that Dr. Carson was appearing at a press conference.

The conference was being held by our opponents, Maryland for Choice. There Dr. Carson stood up and explained that we had misled and pressured him. He hadn’t realized that it would be a political ad. He didn’t know that the tag line, “Vote against Question 6” would be part of the spot (though it had appeared on every version of the script). The statements we had him make about the law needed further explanation to be made fully accurate.

The hurts here are too many to number. If Dr. Carson had concerns after taping the spot, he never phoned us. Though we could have helped him prepare responses against the criticism that no doubt assailed him, we were never given the chance. It was not just that he had second thoughts about the ad, but that he stood at Maryland for Choice’s podium to say so. We were bewildered and greatly saddened. And of course, “Even Dr. Carson says you lied” became the innaccurate epithet thrown at us till the end of the campaign.

Dr. Carson never contacted us again. We heard that in October he addressed a citywide revival crowd of 40,000 to reiterate that we had misled him and they should vote for the referendum. Last week I attended a play at my sons’ Christian school to mark Black History Month; one of the skits was a admiring presentation of Dr. Carson’s work. There are no words for how this feels, except the ancient ones: “If it were an enemy who taunts me, then I could bear it; but it is you, my familiar friend…”(Psalm 54)

5. The Big E

In my husband’s college days, the father of a friend used to delight in reminding the boys that he was the Establishment—“the Big E,” as he put it. One of our opponents’ main tactics, to our surprise, was to claim exactly that mantle—that they represented the Establishment, an impressive array of weighty and influential voices in the state. Their benchmark TV ad consisted primarily of a scroll of the over 50 constituent groups of their coalition, from NOW to the state teacher’s association to religious and ethnic groups. It was another manifestation of the Sharks v. Jets aspect of the fight; the referendum was not on the law, but on the character of those who favored or opposed the law. They were the Establishment; we were the radical fringe.

It was ironic to me that twenty years ago I scorned the “Establishment” title and was proud to style myself a member of the counter-culture. Now here I was again, being forcibly tossed out of the mainstream and labeled a counter-culture agitator once more. There seems to be a theme emerging here. I’m pleased to think that, even at 40, with teenagers and a station wagon and a mortgage, I can still oppose the Establishment with the best of them. Blows against the Empire!

6. Poison

I am a new convert to the Orthodox Church, and write at the beginning of our Lent, seven weeks of abstinence from meat, fish, and dairy products. Last night we bowed our heads to the ground, and asked the Lord to have mercy on his “sad and sorry people.” The days are tinny and chill, a desert of white.

In this time of repentance and reflection, the largest regret I have about the campaign is a deeply personal one. This was my first experience with a political campaign. Swept up in the giddy, vivid days of a brilliant summer and fall, I sprouted gaudy, poisonous blooms of a self I’d hoped was dead: vanity, ego, mocking humor, cynical disdain. So many things I wish I could take back, do over with a spirit of gentleness, love, and self-control.

I know it is possible to go through a political campaign serene, centered, and prayerful. I saw some of my co-workers do it. It may even, in theory, be possible for me. I hope I never have to find out.

Overall, it’s hard to know what to have done differently, what might have won us a different headline on November 4. We could not have done more to insist that the actual flawed contents of the law be objectively examined; it was a tactic that ultimately could not prevail against the simplistic invitation to vote your gang colors. Perhaps we should have listened to those who counseled us not to pursue the referendum at all, although it is nearly impossible to imagine reading that bill for the first time and deciding to do nothing. It was a gauntlet flung down that we felt we could not ignore.

We did win some things. We probably shook every pro-life Marylander available out of the rafters and got their names on a mailing list. We demonstrated that the law was not blandly favored by the populace: a full two-fifths of the state let it be known that they opposed it. We got people energized and working together to the very corners of our oddly-shaped state. And, to tell the truth, we had a lot of fun trying.

But when I consider that these benefits cost $2.5 million, it gives me pause. Were Mark Crutcher and Elaine right? Of that another must be the judge.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.