Senate committee considers constitutional amendment on abortion rights a year after measure stalled in chamber
Ashley Esposito of Baltimore endured two abortions in 2017 and 2018 not because she and her husband didn’t want a baby, but because the couple found out during pregnancy they carry a gene for Fraser Syndrome, which fatally affected both children before birth.
After their losses, the couple chose in vitro fertilization and Esposito delivered a son in July 2020 name Vincenzo, who’s now 2 1/2 years old.
“It was the only way for us to guarantee we wouldn’t pass on this gene to the baby,” Esposito said Wednesday outside the Senate Finance Committee hearing room. “Abortion is legal in Maryland, but it doesn’t mean people can access it.”
Esposito, a web application developer for a tech company, presented emotional testimony before the committee in support of Senate Bill 798 , which seeks to enshrine abortion rights in the state’s constitution, if approved by voters in 2024.
According to the bill, the amendment would ensure that “every person…has the fundamental right to reproductive freedom, including but not limited to the ability to make effectuate decision to prevent, continue, or end one’s one pregnancy…”
The legislation represents a top priority of the Maryland General Assembly Women’s Caucus, which has taken an official position on reproductive rights for the first time in 40 years.
Although Maryland is a state with strong pro-abortion laws, the Democratic-led legislature is pushing for a constitutional amendment because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year to overturn Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to an abortion.
Dozens testified Feb. 21 on an identical House version of the bill sponsored by Speaker Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County), who is championing the measure for the second year in a row.
About three dozen people testified Wednesday in the Senate that began with opening remarks by the bill’s sponsor, Sen. President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), the lead Senate sponsor.
“The decision between bodily autonomy [is] made between a woman and her health care provider. Fundamentally. Full stop. That is what this legislation does,” he said. “We, as a state of Maryland, have an obligation and a duty to protect women in this state and to protect providers to make sure that bodily autonomy and privacy matter…”
Sen. Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore) asked if abortion remains legal in the state, why is a constitutional amendment necessary. In addition, if the legislature approved placing a question on next year’s ballot and voters didn’t approve, “what’s different?”
Ferguson said the legislation ensures “constitutional protection” and any future legislature must comply by it. He also said the U.S. Supreme Court decision eliminated 50 years of judicial precedent and forced states to “define that constitutional right” for abortion.
Several anti-abortion advocates testified against the bill.
Jennifer Brown compared abortion to her experience as a domestic violence survivor.
“Regardless of what terminology maybe used to dehumanize the unborn, it is the same thing that my husband did to me,” said Brown, a former legislative aide in the House speaking on behalf of Christians Advocating for Life. “He believed that because he had a right to treat me the way he did, I no longer had any rights at all. We’ve never passed an amendment like this that would make it a fundamental right to take life, but that’s exactly what we’re doing here today.”
Kathy Kelly, director of Democrats for Life of Maryland, praised her niece, newly-sworn Sen. Ariana Kelly (D-Montgomery) on legislation to help women in the workplace and affordable child care. But she opposes the bill Ariana Kelly championed in the House of Delegates last year.
“This action is a threat to the country’s rights of medical professionals and medical institutions,” she said. “It poses threats to pro-life freedom of speech, including the right to introduce future legislation restricting abortion, such as partial birth abortion bans, or measures to protect the safety of women from unregulated, unrestricted abortion. …Please do not associate your names with this death knell for conscience rights in Maryland.”
The constitutional amendment, which was also sponsored by Jones in 2022, stalled in the Senate chamber last year after having passed the House of Delegates.
Ariana Kelly was one of dozens of Democrats who signed on as a co-sponsor on the House bill this year, and she cited her desire to work on reproductive rights issues in the Senate chamber as her reason for seeking appointment to the District 16 vacancy.
Ferguson told reporters this week that the Senate has the votes to pass the measure out of the chamber this session.
Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.