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Government & Politics

In the Blink of an Eye, State Seems Poised to Protect Abortion Rights

We’ve seen this movie before: Democrats offer a significant policy recommendation. Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) genially sidesteps questions about whether or not he’s for it but says he will not stand in the proposal’s way if that’s what the people want. Democrats fume that Hogan isn’t sufficiently supportive, hint that he may actually oppose the measure, and demand that he say more.

And the public, generally, yawns.

But could things be different this time?

House Speaker Michael E. Busch wants a new constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) announced on Thursday – first via The Washington Post, then in a statement – that he’ll propose an amendment to the state constitution codifying abortion rights during the 2019 General Assembly session. If the measure passes in the legislature, it would go before the voters during the 2020 general election.

Busch said given President Trump’s nomination of U.S. Appeals Court Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh – who grew up and lives in Maryland – to the Supreme Court may endanger the landmark 45-year-old Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion.

“With the Supreme Court currently hanging in the balance and increasing hostility towards women’s reproductive rights by this federal administration, we must continue to ensure that a woman’s right to choose is protected in the state of Maryland,” Busch said. “An amendment to the state constitution will safeguard this important right so that it cannot be changed absent the will of the voters.”

Maryland already has abortion rights enshrined in state statute, thanks to a statewide vote of 62 percent to 38 percent in 1992. But Busch said it is subject to legislative review, meaning it can, in theory, be tinkered with – or reversed – every year. What he is proposing would be more ironclad.

“With several cases currently moving through the federal court system, Marylanders need to know that we are not leaving their health care rights up to chance,” Busch said.

Asked after a speech in Bethesda Thursday whether he would support Busch’s measure, Hogan – who has said he is personally opposed to abortion but has no intention of trying to reverse the state law – referenced the existing statute.

“We already do that it in Maryland. We have a tough law, so any changes at the federal level wouldn’t impact Maryland,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s needed.”

But Hogan added that he had no objection to setting up a vote on a constitutional amendment and thought it would be “great” if voters decided to strengthen the state’s abortion protections.

“I trust the voters of the Maryland to make the right decision,” he said.

While Busch has not tried to politicize his push for a constitutional amendment, less than an hour after Hogan spoke to reporters Thursday, four leading Maryland Democratic women – party Chairwoman Kathleen Matthews, lieutenant governor nominee Susan W. Turnbull, Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s) and former gubernatorial candidate Krishanti Vignarajah – were on a conference call, warning that Hogan’s response was insufficient.

“We believe that Gov. Hogan is equivocating,” Matthews said.

She added that if the amendment does not pass, Democrats fear the issue of abortion could become “a bargaining chip or legislative tool in the future.”

Peña-Melnyk went further, outlining Hogan’s previously stated opposition to abortion rights earlier in his political career and when he was serving as an aide to his father, Lawrence J. Hogan Sr., when the latter was Prince George’s County executive.

“If we look at his background, I think we can tell where he stands,” she said.

The Democrats also said Hogan has made statements more recently suggesting his personal views of abortion have not changed.

“We’re the only ticket that is going to make abortion rights a priority,” Turnbull said.

It’s highly unlikely that Hogan is going to take the bait and respond further to the Democrats’ taunts. But as a practical matter, as a policy development, it hardly matters: Unless the makeup of the General Assembly changes dramatically in November – considered highly unlikely – passage of Busch’s abortion rights measure, in Annapolis next year and at the polls in 2020, seems all but assured.

So in the blink of an eye, Busch appears poised to achieve a significant policy goal.

What about the politics?

If 62 percent of Maryland voters supported abortion rights a quarter century ago, the number of voters who are going to support it in 2020 – with Roe now hanging in the balance, which was not the case then – is likely to be higher. Hogan is promising not to be an impediment.

If Democrats had been thinking more strategically, they might have proposed a constitutional amendment vote for the 2018 election, and their nominee for governor, Benjamin T. Jealous, might have benefited from a big turnout in favor of the abortion rights measure. Yet that would have been seen as a naked ploy to damage Hogan, which might have met with a more skeptical reaction from the governor.

Democrats are forever attempting to tar Hogan with the policies, priorities and peccadilloes of the Trump administration and are constantly trying to remind voters that Hogan is – make no mistake – a Republican. Hogan’s genius is that he has created his own brand of Republicanism – one that even a significant number of Democrats and independents are comfortable with.

The abortion issue is more emotional and drives voters’ ballot decisions more dramatically than most others. Will Hogan’s benign acceptance of the vote to come be enough to inoculate him one more time?

Democrats will continue to try to get some political benefit out of this. They appear to have already won the policy battle.

But hope springs eternal. A tweet from the Maryland Democratic Party Thursday trying to recruit volunteers for a statewide canvass for Jealous began, “Do you want to fight back against the Trump agenda? Well now’s your chance.”

Bruce DePuyt contributed to this report.

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In the Blink of an Eye, State Seems Poised to Protect Abortion Rights