By VANESSA G. SÁNCHEZ
ANNAPOLIS –With the possibility that a U.S. Supreme Court conservative majority could reverse or severely limit women’s abortion rights, Democratic legislators have proposed laws in the General Assembly to create a bulwark against erosion of those rights in Maryland and to expand access to the procedure.
One proposal (HB1171) by House Speaker Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County, would amend the state’s constitution to guarantee a woman’s right to an abortion. If approved by the General Assembly, voters would decide the issue in November.
Although abortion is protected under Maryland law, some Democratic lawmakers argue an amendment is needed to make it more difficult for a future governor or legislators to reverse this protection.
Additionally, they say, the state should expand the ranks of medical professionals allowed to perform the procedure to include nurse practitioners and physician assistants, particularly so women in rural communities have more access to abortions. Currently, only a licensed physician may perform the procedure.
The Abortion Care Access Act is sponsored by Del. Ariana Kelly, D-Montgomery, and companion legislation (HB937/SB0890) was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore County. Kelley chairs the Finance Committee that is considering the bill.
The House has scheduled Kelly’s bill and the proposal for a constitutional amendment for a floor debate Wednesday.
Democratic supporters say they fear if the Supreme Court reverses or severely restricts laws that keep abortion legal, abortion foes may try to limit the right in Maryland.
A dozen bills restricting abortion have been introduced in the House by Republican delegates, including Del. Daniel Cox, R-Frederick and Carroll, who is running for governor. The bills have yet to clear committees for full consideration in the legislature.
“Efforts to chip away at women’s reproductive rights could increase significantly with an anti-abortion Supreme Court decision,” Jones said.
“It’s not hard to imagine a governor withholding critical state funding for a program in an attempt to win concessions limiting state funding for the full range of reproductive services,” Jones said in a hearing. “It’s not hard to imagine a push to separate out reproductive insurance coverage from standard plans.”
Advocates say no matter what happens in the Supreme Court, Maryland is taking proactive measures.
To make sure that “whatever is thrown at us after Roe falls, we are prepared,” Lily Bolourian, executive director of Pro-Choice Maryland, said in an interview with Capital News Service.
Del. Matthew Morgan, R-St. Mary’s, and Del. Nicholaus Kipke, R-Anne Arundel, like some of their fellow House Republicans, oppose the legislation.
Kipke said state law already protects abortion and passing such legislation is “an extreme and unnecessary step.”
“There is zero chance that the state of Maryland is going to pass any bill of any delegate who is against abortion or wants to restrict abortion,” Kipke said Friday during the voting session on the bills in the Health and Government Operations Committee.
Kelly has filed legislation to expand who can perform an abortion, to offer healthcare providers training in abortion care and to ensure abortions are covered by insurance providers.
Democratic lawmakers said Maryland needs to expand the number of providers because the state lags behind others in providing access. The disparity is most prevalent in rural areas, they said.
Two-thirds of Maryland counties do not have abortion providers, according to a 2017 report from the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit that advocates for abortion access. Consequently, women who live in rural communities must travel long distances to metro areas to receive abortion care, advocates and health care providers said during legislative hearings.
Over the years, the number of abortions in Maryland has increased, but not the number of abortion providers, according to the same report.
A 2021 Capital News Service analysis found that there is only one abortion clinic in each of the state’s Central and Southern regions and the Eastern Shore.
Kelly said her legislation would also help women from other states who are seeking abortion care.
Diane Silas, an administrator at Hagerstown Reproductive Health Services, an abortion clinic in Hagerstown in western Maryland, said in an interview the number of clients seeking abortion care at her facility from Pennsylvania, West Virginia and northern Virginia has increased over the years.
“As the laws have become more restrictive (in these states), we see more and more patients, and it’s always from rural areas,” Silas said.
She declined to provide a specific number of patients, citing safety concerns.
Silas also said women from Cumberland, a rural community in the far western portion of Maryland, travel for hours to get to her clinic.
Kelly’s bill would also provide clinical training in abortion care. Under her proposal, the Maryland Department of Health would create the Abortion Care Clinical Training Program. The bill would provide $3.5 million annually to support the program.
Money would be awarded through grants to community and hospital-based abortion providers and nonprofit organizations that have experience offering abortion care services. As the bill is written, there is no provision targeting rural areas.
This legislation would also make sure state-regulated insurance providers offer abortion care without requiring out-of-pocket payments. Medicaid, which only covers abortions when a person’s life is at risk, in rape cases and incest, would expand to cover abortions without restrictions.
Laura Bogley, the director of legislation for Maryland Right to Life, called the bills “radical policy.” The state should not subsidize abortion, she said, but instead invest in preventatitive care.
During the hearings and the voting session in the House committee, Republican delegates said the constitutional amendment is open-ended for abortion at any time and pushed for modifying the language to ensure that abortions remained limited to 24 weeks. The committee cleared the legislation with no amendments.