For what is believed to be the first time in 40 years, the Maryland General Assembly Women’s Caucus has taken an official position to prioritize reproductive rights legislation.
“That is where the fight is, and that is where the Women’s Caucus will be,” Chair Lesley Lopez (D), who represents Montgomery County in the House of Delegates, said.
The caucus will back a package of four bills related to reproductive health because they “protect abortion rights, protect women, and protect Maryland.”
Chief among them is a bill from House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) that would enshrine abortion rights in the state’s constitution, if approved by voters at the ballot box in 2024.
Other reproductive rights bills the caucus supports include:
- House Bill 477/ Senate Bill 341, which would require public universities to create reproductive health services plans.
- House Bill 808/ Senate Bill 859, which would prohibit a requirement to testify about a legal abortion in a state banning abortion.
- House Bill 812/ Senate Bill 786, which would shield medical records involving reproductive health services.
The caucus is also prioritizing five other bills relating to health care, criminal justice reform and women’s economic issues.
Those efforts include support for an expansion of child care subsidies and of Gov. Wes Moore’s Family Prosperity Act, which permanently extends the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit and expands eligibility for the Child Tax Credit.
“We believe that if women can consistently and confidently have access to childcare they will be less financially burdened, more capable in the workforce, and overall more successful,” the caucus said in a press release.
House Speaker Pro Tem Sheree Sample-Hughes (D-Lower Shore) is sponsoring House Bill 376, a caucus priority, which would prohibit health insurers and providers from imposing a copayment for diagnostic breast examinations.
Breast cancer is the most widespread form of cancer in Maryland and “that is in part because it’s very expensive to get diagnostic screening,” Lopez said.
The bill is cross-filed in the Senate by Sen. Pamela Beidle (D-Anne Arundel).
In the area of criminal justice, the caucus is supporting bills to establish a task force to respond to nonconsensual sexual imagery sent online, establish an ombudsman within the state’s prison system, and repeal the state’s spousal defense for rape.
The spousal defense bill has been debated in Annapolis for years, without successful repeal.
“Hopefully this year after several years of very aggressive and talented lobbying by Delegate [Charlotte] Crutchfield, this is the year we make it through,” Lopez said.
And the caucus might have a helpful ally — in the form of an old one.
Del. Ariana Kelly (D-Montgomery) said Thursday that she was informed that the governor’s office will soon appoint her to the vacant District 16 seat in the Maryland Senate, where she will be assigned to the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
“I will be helping Delegate Crutchfield get that bill out of JPR. It ran out of time at the end of last session with some pretty complicated negotiations — that’s a nice way of putting it, right?” Kelly said Thursday. “…But I have a lot of colleagues who have been giving me a lot of great advice on how we can prioritize women’s issues and get them out of that committee and I’m really looking forward to spending a lot of my time in the second half of session to make sure that happens.”
Kelly fills the position of now-Secretary of State Susan Lee, who left the District 16 seat and the legislature to serve in Moore’s administration and previously championed the legislation.
The caucus’ endorsement of the bill package — and reproductive rights measures — comes after the full cohort of Republican women left the group last year. That’s when Lopez, a Democrat, leap-frogged the woman who was presumed to be next in line for chair, a Republican. At the time, some Democrats stood publicly by the 50-12 vote, noting the party’s wide advantage in the caucus and looming battles over abortion.
Lopez said Thursday that there was a bipartisan presence at an annual caucus breakfast with the governor earlier that morning.
“I want to be sensitive to what might be going on within their [Republican] Caucus in trying to give everyone space in coming back,” Lopez said. “Certainly we’ve expressed to them both publicly and privately that there’s space for them here. There’s room for them to lead on the issues that they’re passionate about. We have a bipartisan legacy and we don’t want to destroy that.”