Leading Maryland House members said Monday that they will support a constitutional amendment to protect abortion rights in the state, as well as other measures to broaden access, because of the possibility a conservative U.S. Supreme Court could overturn or weaken federal abortion-rights protections.
If approved by the Maryland General Assembly, the constitutional amendment will go on the ballot for voters to decide in November.
House Speaker Adrienne Jones, who introduced the proposal, said the Supreme Court “has allowed some of the most restricting abortion legislation we’ve seen in a generation,” endangering critical access to reproductive health care.
Last month, the Supreme Court refused to speed up an ongoing court case over Texas' ban on most abortions. The law has left some Texas patients traveling hundreds of miles to clinics in neighboring states or farther, causing a backlog of appointments in those places.
“Restricting women’s family planning options is dangerous and unacceptable,” said Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat. "We will do everything we can to make sure that women’s reproductive health care is always protected here in Maryland, and any woman seeking care in our state has access.”
At least 20 states, mostly across the South and Midwest, already have laws that would severely restrict or ban abortion if the high court overturns Roe v. Wade and leaves the issue up to the states. But more than a dozen states, plus the District of Columbia, have statutory protections in place for abortion rights, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights think tank.
Maryland passed legislation in 1991 to protect a woman’s right to abortion if the Supreme Court should ever restrict abortions. It was petitioned to the ballot, and voters approved it in 1992 with 62% of the vote.
Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1 in the state, and the General Assembly is heavily Democratic.
Del. Jason Buckel, a western Maryland Republican who is the House minority leader, said he did not see a need to create a constitutional amendment to reflect what’s already state law, especially since there have not been Supreme Court rulings that would alter Maryland’s existing laws.
“I’m a little concerned that it’s more politics and posturing,” said Buckel, of Allegany County.
Lawmakers who appeared with the speaker in a videoconference also outlined measures aimed at broadening access to abortion in Maryland.
Del. Ariana Kelly, a Montgomery County Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would increase the number of qualified abortion providers in the state. The measure would remove a legal restriction that prevents nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and physician assistants from providing abortions.
“It’s consistent with how we approach qualifications for other health care procedures in Maryland," Kelly said. "It treats abortion care as what it is: health care without any unnecessary political restrictions.”
Kelly said Maryland has seen a decline in abortion providers since 1991, when the state had 52 providers. Now, that numbers has dropped to 44.
“That’s a 15% drop in the number of providers, while at the same time we have seen a 28% increase in the population, so we have clearly been going in the wrong direction," Kelly said.
Karen Nelson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Maryland, said residents in rural parts of the state, low-income communities and women of color face obstacles every day in having access to abortions.
“And this needs to be a grave concern to all of us, because if we don’t take active steps now and we find ourselves in a world without Roe, those who have will continue to have and those who have not will continue to have none. The threats to overturning Roe V. Wade are real and should be taken seriously,” Nelson said.
Another measure Kelly is sponsoring seeks to provide equitable access to abortion coverage, whether with private insurance or Medicaid.
It would require private insurance plans, except for those with legal exemptions, to cover abortion care and without cost sharing or deductibles.
“We know from research that cost-sharing requirements delay access to care,” Kelly said. "Eliminating that barrier is going to help women access care. For Medicaid, it makes our existing abortion care coverage permanent, instead of subjected to a budget bill debate every year.”