Maryland House speaker to push for constitutional amendment on abortion rights

Pamela Wood/The Baltimore Sun/TNS
·5 min read

BALTIMORE — With the Roe v. Wade court decision that legalized abortion in peril, top women lawmakers in Maryland are pushing to guarantee rights to the procedure in the state’s constitution.

“We will do everything we can to make sure women’s reproductive health care is always protected in Maryland,” said House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones.

Central to her effort is a bill that, if passed by state lawmakers, would give Maryland voters the chance to vote in November to enshrine the right to choose an abortion in the state constitution. Maryland law already guarantees the legality of the procedure, but a constitutional amendment would be much more difficult to overturn.

The proposed constitutional amendment would guarantee each individual’s “fundamental right to reproductive liberty” including to “prevent, continue, or end their pregnancy.”

“I’m confident that voters will send the message loud and clear that this is a fundamental issue of liberty that cannot and should not be chipped away or bargained for,” Jones said during a video news conference Monday.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade legalized abortion throughout the United States. Several cases, including ones from Mississippi and Texas, now pending before the court and its 6-3 conservative majority pose what abortion advocates call an existential threat to the precedent set by Roe v. Wade.

Other bills sponsored by Jones and her team would expand training opportunities for medical professionals, require private insurance to cover abortions at no out-of-pocket cost and require Medicaid to cover abortions.

Each year, funding for abortions for Medicaid patients is part of the state budget, subject to debate in the General Assembly and attempts to strip the money out, said Del. Ariana Kelly, a Montgomery County Democrat.

“This should not be up for debate every year,” Kelly said.

The proposed legislation also would allow more medical professionals to perform abortion procedures and prescribe abortion drugs, including nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and medical assistants. The goal, supporters said, is to expand the number of medical providers who offer abortion care.

About 70% of Maryland’s counties, mostly in rural areas, lack any abortion services, according to the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute, which advocates for abortion access.

“Abortion access shouldn’t be based on your ZIP code,” said Dr. Kyle Bukowski, chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood Maryland.

There were about 29,800 abortions in Maryland in 2017, according to Guttmacher. Typically about 50% to 60% are performed using medication, while the rest involve medical procedures, according to Bukowski.

Bukowski said there’s “ample evidence” that clinicians such as nurse practitioners can be safely trained to perform abortions, as they already perform other reproductive procedures such as inserting IUDs.

“Abortion is health care and health care is a human right. And access to abortion care is clearly a civil right,” said Karen Nelson, CEO of Planned Parenthood Maryland.

Efforts to limit access to abortion have failed repeatedly in Maryland, especially with a 2-to-1 Democratic majority in the General Assembly. But supporters of abortion access say Maryland is feeling the strain from the anti-abortion movement, including protests outside clinics and threats to providers.

Abortion providers say they’re seeing more patients coming to Maryland from other states that have instituted severe restrictions on abortions, including Texas.

Delegate Shane Pendergrass, who chairs a key health committee in the House of Delegates, is confident the abortion access bills will pass.

“I think we believe we have the votes to pass this,” said Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat.

Maryland Democrats had considered putting the right to an abortion in the state constitution before, but it never took off. In late 2018, then-House Speaker Michael E. Busch wanted to make the constitutional amendment one of his central priorities for the 2019 legislative session.

But Busch’s effort was scuttled for a variety of factors, including lack of interest from abortion-rights groups fighting expensive legal battles elsewhere and opposition from then-Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who wanted to wait another year. Busch died in 2019 and Jones, his successor, expressed support for the amendment but did not put it forward in 2020 or 2021.

Over those years, an increasing number of states have enacted restrictive laws on abortion and the U.S. Supreme Court has shifted to a conservative majority.

“The Supreme Court is likely to continue to erode a woman’s right to control her reproductive health care,” Pendergrass said. “These bills need to pass this year to protect access to abortion in Maryland.”

Republicans don’t sense such a dire threat to abortion in Maryland, said Del. Haven Shoemaker, the second-ranking Republican in the House.

He noted that the right to an abortion has been settled law since 1992, when voters overwhelmingly approved a state law adopting the Roe v. Wade protections in Maryland.

Shoemaker thinks putting abortion on the ballot again is more about “galvanizing” Democratic voters to turn out in large numbers in November.

“No matter what the Supreme Court of the United States does with Roe, the worst thing that can happen from a pro-choice perspective is that the high court’s going to say that abortion should be left to the states to decide,” said Shoemaker, a Carroll County Republican who identifies as a pro-life lawmaker. “So we certainly don’t need to codify this in the constitution. It’s just unnecessary pandering.”

The bills will have a public hearing next week in the House Health and Government Operations Committee. Should they pass both the House and the Senate by the time the General Assembly adjourns in April, the constitutional question would go to voters on November’s ballot.

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