Abortion funding on three state ballots. Constitutional proposals have pro-choice forces concerned

While politicians are being pressed to take public stands on abortion this election season, a much less publicized abortion battle -- yet one with ramifications stretching far beyond Nov. 4 -- is already shaping up at the ballot box in three states. On the surface, the proposed amendments to the state constitutions of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Arkansas are aimed at prohibiting the use of medicaid funds for abortions, a move that would bring these states in line with the federal government and 36 other states.

What is particularly worrisome to many pro-choice activists, however, is that the proposed amendments also include wording that sets the stage for the outlawing of abortions in these three states.

States are currently bound by Roe v. Wade, the US Supreme Court ruling that declared a woman's constitutional right to choose abortion. But if that decision were overturned, jurisdiction would return to the states. If voters in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Arkansas approve the proposed amendments, legislators in those states would be constitutionally empowered to act immediately to prohibit abortions should the nation's highest court reverse itself.

``This is the next step toward outlawing abortion,'' says Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women, which is campaigning against the referendums. ``It's putting in place the mechanism to make abortion illegal.''

The National Right to Life Committee has refused to comment on the referendums, which are backed by right-to-life groups. These groups are presenting the proposed amendments not as an attack on abortion, but as a financial measure aimed at saving taxpayer money. (Oregon voters will also be voting in November on a referendum that would cut off medicaid funds for abortions; the Oregon referendum, however, does not include wording that would give the state the constitutional right to ban abortion).

``Our intent is to restrict abortion funding,'' says Dan Avila, legislative director of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, which helped draft the Massachusetts referendum. ``We don't think tax dollars should be used for abortions for nonhealth reasons.''

The US Supreme Court has held that while a woman cannot be denied the right to choose an abortion, the Constitution does not mandate the use of public funds to pay for it. Most states forbid the use of tax dollars for an abortion unless the mother's life is threatened.

Currently 14 states and the District of Columbia allow the use of medicaid funds for abortions. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI), a nonprofit research organization on reproductive health-care issues, those 14 states fund approximately 99 percent of all abortions nationwide for low-income women.

These 14 states have also been where right-to-life advocates have found it most difficult to overturn public funding of abortions. In Massachusetts, for example, the state's highest court struck down abortion-funding restrictions passed by the state legislature -- ruling that the state constitution provides broader protection for the individual than the federal Constitution does.

``The proposed amendment is the only way we have to reverse that decision,'' Mr. Avila says. ``Our argument is that the referendum takes the issue out of the courts, puts it before the public, encourages debate, and allows the people, through their elected representatives, to decide what state policy should be.''

Pro-choice advocates like Ms. Smeal argue that the funding issue is ``a Trojan horse.'' Medicaid-funded abortions account for approximately 15 percent of the 1.5 million abortions performed yearly. And according to an AGI study, on a nationwide average, for every dollar spent to pay for abortions for poor women, about $4 are saved in public medical and welfare expenses.

Not all pro-choice activists are as concerned as Smeal about the possibility of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision being overturned, even if a high-court vacancy occurs that would allow President Reagan to make another conservative appointment.

Many observers say they believe it is unlikely that the court would completely reverse itself. And they say, even if the court did reverse itself, the abortion battle would be waged at a state level.

``If Roe v. Wade were overturned, a lot more women would feel threatened than feel that way now,'' says Leonard Glantz, a professor of health law at Boston University. ``There's no way to be sure what state legislators would do when and if the time comes that they would have the right to regulate abortions. But you can't predict that things would go back to the way they were before 1973.''

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