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Md. Democrats say ‘we can’t take anything for granted’ on abortion access

Md. Democrats say ‘we can’t take anything for granted’ on abortion access

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Maryland House Speaker Adrienne Jones, front, speaks during a news conference in front of Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller, left, Gov. Wes Moore, second from left, and Senate President Bill Ferguson, right, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023, in Annapolis. State lawmakers announced support for measures protecting abortion rights, including a state constitutional amendment that would enshrine it. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland Democrats said Thursday they intend to make the state a safe haven for those seeking abortions.

A four-pack of bills, including a proposed amendment to the state constitution, is aimed at a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned 50 years of constitutional protection for abortions nationally. The ruling eight months ago left Maryland as one of more than a dozen states that have laws protecting access to abortion.

“We can’t take anything for granted in the future,” said House Speaker Adrienne Jones, who unsuccessfully sponsored a bill last year enshrining the right to an abortion in the state constitution in advance of a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision. “Reproductive care must be a right enshrined in our constitution so it can never be up for debate or used as a bargaining chip.”

The announcement Thursday in the rotunda between the historic House and Senate chambers marked the first time that Jones, Senate President Bill Ferguson and Gov. Wes Moore made a joint announcement on shared legislative priorities.

Topping the package of bills is the proposed constitutional amendment sponsored by Jones. The bill, died in the Senate last year.

The text of the amendment: “That every person, as a central component of an individual’s rights to liberty and equality, has the fundamental right to reproductive freedom, including but not limited to the ability to make and effectuate decisions to prevent, continue, or end one’s own pregnancy. The state may not, directly or indirectly, deny, burden, or abridge the right unless justified by a compelling state interest achieved by the least restrictive means.”

Opponents of the measure say it’s unnecessary, pointing to a 1991 Maryland law codifying the Roe v. Wade decision — the Supreme Court ruling that had found a right of abortion in the U.S. Constitution — in state law. The two-decade-old state law protects the right to an abortion up to the time of fetal viability or later in the case of a risk to the health of the mother.

Opponents say that the battle in 1991, which included a referendum in which voters approved the measure, make a constitutional amendment now unnecessary.

Other bills include:

  • A bill prohibiting law enforcement and prosecutors from assisting other states in prosecuting women who have an abortion.
  • A proposal that would shield information about patients who have abortions and the health care providers who offer the procedure.
  • A measure guaranteeing access at state university health centers to contraception as well as to medication abortion — pills that can be taken to terminate a pregnancy up to 10 weeks after conception.

All four bills have been filed in both the House and Senate. The amendment to the constitution requires a three-fifths majority in both the House and Senate to pass. Democrats control more than enough seats to reach those numbers without a single Republican vote.

If the measure passes, it would then go on a statewide ballot for voters to either approve or reject.

Earlier this year, Ferguson, who leads a 34-member Democratic caucus,  vowed passage of the constitutional amendment in his chamber. Such a bill only requires 29 votes to pass.

Ferguson said passage of all four bills was made necessary by “an extreme and destructive” decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that effectively wiped out protections from the seminal 1973  Roe v. Wade ruling.

“In a post-Roe world, Maryland has a responsibility to lead and to become a beacon of freedom on the national stage,” said Ferguson, who four years ago declared his chamber would not take up a vote to enshrine abortion rights within the state constitution.

“Those seeking reproductive health care will find Maryland protects reproductive freedom in our state,” said Ferguson.

A number of states have moved to limit or ban abortions in the wake of the decision last summer.

Regionally, lawmakers in Virginia are considering amending that state’s constitution to ban abortions after 15 weeks. The proposal would makes exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin supports that effort.

Last year, West Virginia passed a near total ban on abortions. Parts of that law are being challenged in federal court.

“It doesn’t matter what Texas, West Virginia or any other state legislature does,” said Jones. “They will never dictate what Maryland does. They will never dictate the rights of Marylanders.”

The package is likely to face vocal but limited opposition from House and Senate Republicans.

“Maryland simply does not need a constitutional amendment enshrining the right to an abortion,” The House Republican Caucus said in a statement. “Moreover, we believe that most Marylanders would prefer a middle course on this issue, and permitting late-term elective abortions – as this amendment appears to allow – is outside the mainstream views of our citizens. The General Assembly’s time and energy would be better spent on addressing the issues that will truly improve the lives of our citizens: reducing crime, improving education, and strengthening our economy.”

In the Senate, Sens. Steven Hershey and Justin Ready, minority leader and whip respectively, said Democrats are making the General Assembly “the playground of symbolic gestures.”

“What makes Maryland Democrats the arbiters of what is and is not a Constitutional right?” the pair said in a statement. “On Tuesday, Marylanders were told that their Second Amendment rights do not apply in Maryland, and today, Marylanders and citizens from around the country were told that everyone has the right to unrestricted abortion. If the only rights and freedoms that matter are those in the Maryland Constitution, there are several others we would like to enshrine – such as the freedom to keep our families and communities safe, freedom from over taxation, and the freedom of parents to direct the upbringing of their children.

Republicans, already minorities in the House and Senate, lost seats in the most recent election. Pragmatically speaking, Republicans do not have the votes to prevent passage of any of the bills including the supermajority minimum votes needed for a constitutional amendment.

A year ago, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan withheld money earmarked for training to expand the number of providers.

That era of divided government is over. 

Moore, a Democrat, is supportive of reproductive rights and access to abortions. On the day after being sworn in, Moore announced he would release the $3.5 million for training that his predecessor froze.

Moore, speaking Thursday, vowed to sign the bills into law when they reach his desk. The constitutional amendment does not require the signature of the governor. Moore said his administration fully supports the passage of that bill, as well.

“We’re going to make sure Maryland is a safe have for abortion rights long after I am governor of this state,” said Moore.

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