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Abortion rights amendment to state constitution clears hurdle in the House

Abortion rights supporters at an Annapolis rally in October 2021. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

The House of Delegates gave preliminary approval to a proposal that would enshrine the right to abortion in the Maryland Constitution.

House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County), sponsor of House Bill 705, renewed an effort to establish a constitutional right to abortion and other reproductive health care following a U.S. Supreme Court decision last summer that overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

“Ultimately, this bill is about giving Maryland voters a decision about whether the fundamental right to reproductive freedom should be enshrined in our state constitution,” said House Health and Government Operations Chair Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel). “It is the highest level of protection that we can give people in Maryland, especially given the decision this past summer of the US Supreme decided that abortion was not protected under a constitution.”

House Health and Government Operations Chair Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel). File photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

An identical bill, Senate Bill 798, is scheduled for a preliminary vote in the Senate on Thursday. One of the bills would need the approval of super majorities in both chambers before being sent to the ballot for voter approval in the 2024 election.
Access to abortion in Maryland is guaranteed under a 1992 law.

That law allows for an abortion if the fetus is not viable outside the womb. The procedure is legally allowed after that point in cases of serious genetic defects or medical anomalies and in cases where it would be necessary to protect the health or life of the mother.

“I want to clarify that the bill does not change Maryland’s current law which provides that the decision about abortion rests with the woman in consultation with her provider,” Peña-Melnyk said. “…This bill is about a woman’s right to choose what we do with our body, when and where.”

This is the third time since 2019 that the General Assembly has considered enshrining abortion rights in the constitution. The House passed the bill last year but it later died in the Senate. This year, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), who is sponsoring the Senate bill, has vowed a vote from the full Senate and predicted its passage.

The preliminary House vote Wednesday capped a nearly 20-minute debate in which Republicans attempted to amend the proposal.

In all, House Republicans unsuccessfully offered three amendments.

All three proposed amendments were defeated in party-line votes in margins large enough to suggest Democrats will have no trouble reaching the 85 votes needed to pass a constitutional amendment.

Del. William Wivell (R-Washington and Frederick) offered two amendments.

The first amendment would have granted constitutional protections to the “preborn.”

The second would have changed the phrase “reproductive freedom” in the proposed constitutional language to “abortion.” Wivell said the change was consistent with a similar law in California.

“So boldly going where no man has gone before, California actually mentioned the word abortion in their constitutional amendment,” said Wivell. “So with this amendment, I ask the legislature to be honest with the voters so they know exactly what they’re voting for.”

A third amendment offered by Del. April Miller (R-Frederick) proposed replacing the word “person” with “woman.”

Peña-Melnyk said such a change was unnecessary and ignored a broader array of reproductive choices that includes vasectomies, condoms and in vitro fertilization.

Del. Lauren Arikan (R-Baltimore and Harford) questioned Peña-Melnyk’s explanation.

“Men are not being denied vasectomies,” said Arikan. “They are not being told when they go to the store and they cannot buy condoms We are talking about women.”


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Abortion rights amendment to state constitution clears hurdle in the House