House Speaker Jones seeks constitutional amendment to strengthen abortion rights in Md.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) presides over the last day of the 2020 General Assembly session. (Courtesy Maryland Matters/Danielle E. Gaines)

This article was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

This content was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) announced Monday that she is sponsoring legislation aimed at enshrining abortion access in the Maryland Constitution.

“Restricting women’s family planning options is dangerous and unacceptable,” she said. “We will do everything we can to make sure that women’s reproductive healthcare is always protected in Maryland and send the message loud and clear that this a fundamental issue of liberty that cannot and should not be chipped away at or bargained for.”

House Bill 1171 would create a ballot referendum allowing Marylanders to vote on whether abortion access should be protected in the state constitution.

Jones said at a news conference Monday that she is proud to pick up where her predecessor, the late House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), left off.

In 2019, Busch introduced a bill to create a ballot initiative to incorporate abortion rights into the state constitution but pulled it due to a lack of support from then-Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr. (D-Calvert).

The legislature has been working to protect the right to abortion for decades.

In 1991, the General Assembly passed a bill to prohibit the state from obstructing the right to abortion up until a fetus is able to live outside of the womb. Once viability is reached, abortions can be performed only if there is a fetal anomaly or to protect a woman’s health.

In 1992, a statewide referendum codified the measure, ensuring that access to abortion would still be legal in Maryland regardless of whether the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

House Health and Government Operations Committee Chair Shane E. Pendergrass (D-Howard) remembered voting in favor of the referendum, known as Question Six, 30 years ago.

“I believed that by now we would be more enlightened society, recognizing a woman’s right [to] working with her doctor to make medical decisions for herself,” Pendergrass said on Monday. “ Unfortunately, I was wrong.”

Enshrining the right to abortion access in the state constitution would make it more difficult for future General Assemblies to overturn the right.

The Supreme Court is poised to issue a decision on the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case this spring.

The question at the case’s center: Is the Mississippi law that bans most abortion access after 15 weeks of pregnancy unconstitutional?

Considering the current makeup of the Supreme Court, abortion rights supporters fear for the fate of Roe v. Wade.

“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.”

Del. Ariana Kelly (D-Montgomery) said that 62% of Marylanders voted in favor of Question Six in 1992.

“Today when you poll that, the answer would be about 72%,” she continued. “So the speaker’s bill … that’s going to elevate the legal right we have to abortion in Maryland to a constitutional right is such an important statement today.”

Kelly is sponsoring two bills to increase access to abortion services in the state.

House Bill 952, or The Abortion Care Access to Insurance Act, would require private insurance plans — barring those with legal exemptions — to cover abortion care without cost-sharing or deductibles.

For Medicaid recipients, it would make the state’s existing abortion care coverage permanent rather than having it subjected to a budget bill debate every year.

“Low-income women do not have different fundamental rights than women with private insurance,” Kelly said. “This should not be up for debate every year.”

House Bill 937, or The Abortion Care Access Act, seeks to repeal a legal restriction preventing nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and physician assistants from providing abortion services. Kelly’s bill would also support providing clinical training for physicians and nurses who move to Maryland from states with more restrictive abortion laws.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, there are 44 abortion provider locations across Maryland.

Kelly said that residents in 71% of Maryland’s jurisdictions don’t have a provider.

Dr. Kyle Bukowski, Planned Parenthood of Maryland’s chief medical officer, said that the provider shortage begins in school: less than half of U.S. medical schools offer students hands-on clinical abortion training, he said.

According to Bukowski, this is compounded by a lack of training for interested students during their residency period and worsened when they apply to jobs where they may not have the ability to provide abortion care.

“People need abortion providers in their communities now, and those providers need improvements in training and removal of unnecessary regulations,” Bukowski said.

Kelly said that 26 states are expected to severely restrict access to abortion after the Supreme Court delivers its decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson case this spring.

“Clinics in Maryland are seeing patients from Texas already, too, every week,” she said. “And this pressure on our providers will increase dramatically as more states restrict or ban abortion.”

In September 2021, a Texas law was enacted prohibiting physicians from performing or inducing abortions once fetal cardiac activity is detected.

Private citizens enforce the law, and can pursue civil lawsuits against providers or anyone who “aids and abets” access to abortion services.

Under the Texas law, abortions are allowed after six weeks of pregnancy only in the case of emergencies. In those cases, doctors are mandated to keep comprehensive records.

While not a part of the legislative package announced Monday, Del. Nicole A. Williams (D-Prince George’s) and Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) are co-sponsoring a bill to protect against the restrictive laws seen in Texas and other states.

House Bill 626, or The Pregnant Person’s Freedom Act of 2022, would establish that civil or criminal charges can’t be pursued against people who experience miscarriages, stillbirths or who underwent abortion services.

Additionally, the bill would protect abortion providers or people providing support to someone seeking an abortion from civil and criminal liability.
“This bill is super important because, really, the criminalization of pregnancy loss is a reproductive justice and harm reduction issue,” Williams said.

While some see the bill as seeking to do the “opposite” of what Texas has done, Williams said she has been working behind the scenes for years to “decriminalize pregnancy loss.”

“It’s largely a prophylactic measure, but it’s also a statement of values as well,” Smith said late last month.

Asked what it meant for Smith, a man in a position of power in the General Assembly, to co-sponsor this legislation, he said that, “absent of pronouns, it’s about the general philosophy and the general protection of a[n] individual’s right to have control and domain of their body and their medical decision making.”

“…It’s about safeguarding fundamental rights,” he said.

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