Double Dose of Disappointment for Abortion Rights Advocates

Del. Shane M. Pendergrass (D-Howard) at a rally in January. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Maryland abortion rights advocates have been dealt a double dose of disappointment in the past few days – with the Trump administration plowing ahead with a rule that would slash funding dramatically for Planned Parenthood, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) withdrawing legislation for a ballot initiative to codify abortion rights in the state constitution.

But while clearly discouraged by the news, pro-choice activists and their allies in the General Assembly were trying to remain sanguine Monday about the developments – and expressed optimism that reproductive rights would remain well protected in the state.

“We have great abortion laws in Maryland,” said Del. Ariana B. Kelly (D-Montgomery).

The Trump administration’s proposed rule, issued Friday, takes direct aim at Planned Parenthood and came as no surprise. If enacted, it would cut off federal family planning funds for organizations that provide abortions or refer women for abortions elsewhere.

“Of course, we’re dismayed, and very concerned for our patients,” said Karen J. Nelson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Maryland. “This is an attempt to dismantle access to birth control and the reproductive health care system. The rule requires providers to not give information to patients.”

Maryland lawmakers in 2017 passed legislation that would restore any federal funding cut from Planned Parenthood with state dollars. The measure, which went into law without Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s signature, would establish a state family planning program to ensure continued funding of services that President Trump is now proposing to eliminate under Title X of the federal Public Health Service Act.

“There’s a vehicle to protect family planning services,” said House Health and Government Operations Chair Shane M. Pendergrass (D-Howard), the chief House sponsor of the legislation.

The funding scheme would not kick in until the federal monies are shut off – and between the federal rulemaking process and litigation challenging the proposed Trump rule, that may not happen for quite a while.

The state of Washington and the ACLU jointly filed suit against the rule on Monday. California is also expected to sue.

Raquel Guillory Coombs, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D), said Monday that Maryland is expecting to join a multistate suit to overturn the funding ban in the near future.

Nelson said Planned Parenthood is grateful for the promised state support but hopes this is a last resort that will never have to be utilized.

“No state should have to step in in this way,” she said.

Ballot initiative pulled

While the Trump rule seeking to ban federal funding for family planning organizations did not come as a surprise, Busch’s decision to withdraw his legislation to set up a 2020 ballot initiative enshrining abortion rights in the state constitution caught many advocates off-guard. When he announced the legislation last fall, Busch said he wanted to protect women against the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court, with a newly-empowered conservative wing, could seek to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the U.S.

Busch told The Washington Post Saturday that he was pulling the legislation this year because he could not get buy-in from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who was unenthusiastic about acting on a proposed referendum a full year before the question would be placed on the ballot.

Busch intends to resubmit the legislation, which had more than 50 House sponsors, next year.

While the decision drew some blowback on social media from a few progressive activists who routinely criticize the legislature’s veteran presiding officers, abortion rights advocates pointed out that Busch’s move does not delay a push for a ballot question.

“What this means is we have another year to see whether we want to expand abortion rights in Maryland and to figure out what everything looks like,” said Diana Philip, executive director of the group NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland.

A 1992 state law, passed by referendum, enshrines abortion rights in Maryland, but a constitutional amendment would add extra protections, because it would be more difficult to overturn.

Busch’s proposal for a constitutional amendment was designed to motivate liberals in an election year but would also stimulate political energy on the right.

Putting the debate in the legislature off for a year means “we can take our time on this – there’s no rush,” said Kelly, the former president of the Women’s Legislative Caucus.

Still, with Trump and the current Supreme Court in power, Marylanders who support abortion rights can’t take anything for granted, Philip said. NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland has a long list of bills in the legislature on sexual and reproductive health care and family planning that it is supporting and an equally long list of bills restricting abortion access that it is opposing.

“A year from now, I don’t know what everything’s going to look like,” Philip said.

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Josh Kurtz
Founding Editor Josh Kurtz is a veteran chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He was an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, for eight years, and for eight years was the editor of E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill. For 6 1/2 years Kurtz wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz regularly gives speeches and appears on TV and radio shows to discuss Maryland politics.

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