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Tensions Run High During House Hearings on Abortion Access Bills

The Maryland State House in Annapolis. Photo by Christopher Boswell, stock.adobe.com.

The General Assembly session reached an emotional crescendo Tuesday as a House committee heard bills designed to protect and extend abortion rights in Maryland.

Sponsored by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), House Bill 1171 would create a ballot referendum allowing Marylanders to vote on whether the “fundamental right to reproductive liberty” should be protected in the state constitution.

The bill is part of a package of legislation pending in the House of Delegates that stands in stark contrast to restrictive measures passed by or pending in Republican-controlled legislatures.

Jones said that abortion access appeared to be a “settled issue” in the state for decades.

“This is no longer the case,” she said.

Among the bills pending in the House are two from Del. Ariana Kelly (D-Montgomery).

The first would require most private insurance plans — except those with religious or legal exemptions — to cover abortion care without cost-sharing or deductibles and make the state’s existing abortion care coverage permanent for Medicaid recipients.

The other bill would provide clinical training for physicians and nurses who move to Maryland from states with restrictive laws. That bill would also repeal a legal provision preventing nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and physicians assistants from providing abortion services.

The bills in the House package retain existing religious and conscience protections for physicians who do not choose to provide abortions.

The Maryland legislature passed a bill in 1991 to bar the state from interfering with the right to terminate pregnancies up until a fetus is able to live outside of the womb.

And a 1992 statewide referendum codified the protections afforded under the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade.

Democratic lawmakers are pushing to take abortion rights in Maryland further, elevating them from protection within state statute, to protection within the constitution. A constitutional amendment would make it harder for a future legislature to revoke or change the law.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide this spring whether a Mississippi ban on abortion services after 15 weeks is constitutional. Texas also passed a law effectively banning abortions after six weeks, by giving private citizens the ability to sue doctors, nurses, or any other person who helps someone obtain an abortion after six weeks. In January, the Supreme Court declined abortion providers’ requests to intervene and block the law after lower courts have allowed it to stand.

Given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, policymakers are nervous about the fate of abortion access.

“To those who would say that can’t happen here, I will point to the last six years of politics in this country and ask you if we have any norms that haven’t been broken or tested,” Jones said.

Kelly said if the Supreme Court loosens the precedent set by Roe v. Wade 49 years ago, 26 states could impose bans or near-bans on abortion care. If this happens, she said wait times for Maryland residents seeking care will increase by nearly three weeks.

“This impact on young women and families will be disastrous,” Jones told committee members. “And as we have seen in the COVID pandemic, and with many other public health issues, the burden will disproportionately impact lower-income women and communities of color.”

‘We need to be honest about the evidence’

Committee Republicans had no shortage of questions and arguments against the package of bills.

Del. Teresa E. Reilly (R-Cecil and Harford) said that there are mental and physical health effects for people who terminate their pregnancies, including the possibility that they may not be able to conceive in the future.

Dr. Diane Horvath, an OB-GYN who has been providing abortion services for 16 years, disagreed with Reilly’s comments about mental health and said “uncomplicated abortions” do not impact future fertility.

“This is very well-established by research that abortion is … 10 to 15 times safer than going through birth — which is not to say that people shouldn’t have births, it’s to say that we need to be honest about the evidence,” she said.

Del. Brian A. Chisholm (R-Anne Arundel) noted that Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was a eugenicist and white supremacist. He also called abortion “Black genocide,” a phrase that others who oppose the bill repeated throughout the day.

Planned Parenthood has acknowledged and denounced Sanger’s ideology.

Laura Bogley, the director of legislation for Maryland Right to Life, opposed the bill and called it “a death sentence for Black children in Maryland.”

She called on Jones, the first Black speaker of the House, to withdraw the legislation.

Horvath said those arguments were “shorthand” for people to say that they “don’t trust Black women and families to make decisions about what’s best for them.”

“I think the issue here for equity and justice is people being able to determine the best for their own families, their own lives, their own pregnancies,” she said.

The Senate approach

A bill sponsored by Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) and Del. Nicole A. Williams (D-Prince George’s) would protect abortion providers or people providing support to someone seeking care from civil and criminal liability.

It also shields people who have sought out abortion or experienced miscarriages or stillbirths from legal suits.

A hearing for the Senate cross-file of the bill was scheduled for Wednesday but has been postponed.

In an interview outside of the State House, Smith said the hearing’s cancellation was a matter of logistics and not based on a “lack of commitment on behalf of leadership.”

The two chambers are taking different approaches on abortion rights bills this session.

David Schuhlein, a spokesperson for Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), said that leadership in his chamber is “definitely” focused on expanded abortion access, mostly through Smith’s bill and the Senate cross-file of Kelly’s bill to expand the network of care providers.

The hearing for Smith’s Senate bill was rescheduled for March 15. The House version will be heard in the Judiciary Committee on March 11.