Abortion funding, private-school aid heat up Bay State ballot

SHOULD abortions be outlawed in Massachusetts? Should public funds be used to help finance private schools? These are the top questions facing Bay State voters next month. Although the first proposal appears to be focused on banning use of public funds to terminate unwanted pregnancies, its scope and intent are even more far reaching.

Question 1, if approved, would also give state lawmakers authority to impose whatever additional abortion restrictions they might deem appropriate ``to the extent permitted by the Constitution of the United States.''

So, if the US Supreme Court were to reverse or modify its 1973 decision that a state may not forbid abortions during the first six months of pregnancy, Massachusetts legislators could make access to the controversial procedure more difficult. But only if state voters approve Question 1. The state constitution currently guarantees a woman's freedom of choice, and thus her right to an abortion.

How far the legislature might go toward restricting abortions is unsure, but Question 1 cleared a joint House-Senate session last April 123 to 69 and carried 120 to 67 at a similar gathering in June 1984.

Critics of the proposed change, including women's rights activists, maintain that the decision to bear a child is the potential mother's and ought not be impeded through intrusion of government or other influences.

Anti-abortion forces hold that a fetus is an individual from conception and thus has rights that transcend those of the mother. If the question fails to win, they seem certain to try again next year.

In steering the proposal through joint legislative sittings earlier this year and in 1984, anti-abortion leaders successfully resisted moves to permit abortions where pregnancies resulted from rape or incest or where a woman's health might be impaired.

The debate over Question 1, which until early this month received little attention, may be heating up. In a recent taped message Bernard Cardinal Law reminded Roman Catholic churchgoers in Boston about the ballot question and his strong backing of it. His obvious intent was to try to boost prospects for the amendment, since voter preference samplings have indicated lagging support for it.

A ``yes'' vote on Question 1 means ratification of the amendment. A vote ``no,'' as favored by the League of Women Voters, Massachusetts Council of Churches (comprising most Protestant denominations), and CPPAX (Citizens for Participation in Political Action), would keep things as they are.

Also on the Bay State ballot is another emotion-charged measure. Question 2, if voters approve, would eliminate the current Massachusetts constitutional ban on government funding of private elementary and secondary schools or their students through tuition grants.

A similar proposal was rejected four years ago by better than 3 to 2. Without the strong backing of Senate President William M. Bulger (D) of Boston, it is unlikely the proposal would be back on the ballot so quickly. Senator Bulger views the present more-than-century-old constitutional restriction on public dollars for private schools as a throwback to the secret Know Nothing Party of the mid-1800s and its strong anti-Catholic stance.

Boosters of the measure, which cleared joint Senate-House sittings last spring and in late 1984 by 108 to 79 and 107 to 87, say sentiments have shifted. They note that operating costs and tuition at parochial and other private schools have increased sharply. Without public funding, more and more nonpublic schools will be forced to close, they say.

Question 2 critics, including those in teacher unions, CPPAX, and the League of Women Voters, worry that such aid would come at the expense of public schools. The availability of tuition assistance, they say, would almost certainly induce some parents to move their children into church-run or other private schools.

This certainly could cause a withering away of the public school system, perhaps abandoning it to poorer students and those from low-income homes. Competition for tax dollars would harm the quality of public education. Passage of Question 2 would place pressure on legislators to support two separate school systems -- free public education for all and private schools for those who can afford it and are turned off by public schools.

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