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Maryland Democrats bullish on enshrining abortion rights in constitution, Republicans say beware

The Maryland House of Delegates Chamber.
Matt Bush
The Maryland House of Delegates Chamber.

A bill to create a constitutional amendment enshrining the right to an abortion in the state made it one step closer to the House floor as lawmakers listened to opinions from the public on the issue.

The House Health and Government Operations Committee held a hearing on the bill Tuesday. While the usual arguments around abortion prevailed, a smaller more government-minded debate bubbled up as well.

At the crux of the amendment is the idea of reproductive autonomy as an inalienable right. The amendment prohibits “the state from, directly or indirectly, denying, burdening, or abridging the right unless justified by a compelling State interest achieved by the least restrictive means.”

Proponents of the amendment feel that autonomy shouldn’t be swayed by the whim of partisan officials and that an amendment safeguards that right more than a law.

“The bill in front of us provides Marylanders with the highest possible level of protection for reproductive freedom,” said Karen Nelson, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Maryland. "In the simplest terms, the bill ensures the right of individuals to make and effectuate their own decisions about their own health care, abortion, birth control and whether to end a pregnancy.”

However, opponents of the bill argue that the amendment is too broad, fearing that the amendment grants too much leeway for controversial reproductive procedures.

“This amendment would take the power to regulate abortion away from the elected officials,” said Barb Pivec, a member of the Maryland Federation of Republican Women. “This bill appears to include again, allowing minors under the age of 21 to consent to surgery to remove their reproductive organs for gender reassignment.”

A legal minor in the U.S. are individuals under the age of 18 years old, not younger than 21 years old.

The bill still needs to pass both the House and Senate.

From there, to become a constitutional amendment, it will need to pass a referendum of Maryland voters in the 2024 general election.

Last year, The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the 50-year precedent of Roe v. Wade last year, which gave more power to the states to individually regulate abortion triggering bans in several states.

The 6-to-3 ruling was led by the conservative majority and three liberal Supreme Court justices dissented. The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case was brought to the court by Mississippi’s only abortion provider after a majority Republican state legislature passed an abortion ban after 15 weeks.

In 1991, Maryland lawmakers passed and then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer, a Democrat, signed a bill allowing abortions up to the point when a fetus can survive outside the womb.

Opponents petitioned the bill to appear as a referendum on the ballot, but voters approved abortion rights by a 2-1 margin in 1992.

Maryland’s fetal homicide law, which took effect in 2005, is still on the books, which means an aborted fetus can be considered a murder victim but only for ‘viable’ fetuses.

This past legislative session the Maryland House of Delegates voted 93-42 to pass a bill which would amend the state constitution to include the right to an abortion. But the bill died in the Senate, which did not vote on it.

Lawmakers are more optimistic this year, with a solid Democratic majority in both houses, plenty of time on the legislative clock which runs out in April, and a governor committed to the legislation.

Del. Ariana Kelly, a Democrat, who represents District 16, said lawmakers are working on a series of bills to safeguard providers from prosecution across state lines.

The Montgomery County Democrat serves as the vice chair of the Health and Government Operations Subcommittee.

“We're talking about protection against criminal prosecution, prohibiting law enforcement from cooperating with extradition requests, prohibiting state agencies from providing information, protections from civil litigation, protecting health practitioners from disciplinary actions based on out-of-state licensing boards,” Kelly said.

To date, only three states have amended their state constitutions to protect reproductive rights: California, Colorado and Vermont. Michigan has some protections in its constitution.

Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia have amendments that restrict the right to abortion.

Sixteen states, plus Washington D.C., also passed laws protecting abortion rights.

Editor's Note: Kristen Mosbrucker and Rachel Baye contributed to this news story.

Scott is the Health Reporter for WYPR. @smaucionewypr
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