The Supreme Court upended a half century of precedent when it overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion a constitutional right, shifting the onus to states such as Maryland to decide whether such services are legal.
An estimated half the states are expected to ban or significantly curtail abortion procedures, and some clinics already had shuttered in anticipation of Friday’s announcement, sending women from places as far away as Texas to Maryland. The status of those states was being closely tracked Saturday.
Buoyed by public support, lawmakers in the state’s General Assembly already moved this year to bolster abortion access in Maryland, adding to the workers who would be allowed to provide the procedures, setting up training and preparing to accept and fund a greater influx of women from outside its borders.
“From a practical and strategic planning standpoint, we are concerned about the volumes of patients who could potentially come to the state of Maryland, and that’s why we worked hard to shore up our own operations and why we worked with the General Assembly to ensure access,” said Karen Nelson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Maryland.
“There are 36 million women of reproductive health age in the 26 states that could ban or put limits on abortion care, big numbers,” she said. “We have been looking to determine how far patients will travel and from what states. … In the meantime, we are prepared in our health centers to continue to operate.”
Montgomery County Del. Ariana B. Kelly teamed with Senate Finance Committee Chair Delores G. Kelley to shepherd the Abortion Care Access Act through the legislature to expand the abortion workforce, as well as require public and private insurers to pay for the procedure.
But Kelly expressed concern about how the Supreme Court’s move would burden the system in the state and said if surrounding states enact abortion bans more will need to be done.
“We have codified the protections of Roe v. Wade in Maryland,” Kelly said. “However, Maryland is going to be under a lot of pressure. We are the southernmost safe state.”
The national abortion precedent was set in 1973 and held that the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provided a fundamental right to privacy that protects the right to an abortion. The court further ruled in a 1992 case that states can’t put an undue burden on the right, and again in 2016 that states couldn’t allow strict requirements on abortion clinics and doctors.
But the new conservative majority on the Supreme Court used a Mississippi case Friday to overturn Roe entirely, although the state law had sought only to ban abortion at 15 weeks of pregnancy. It had been blocked by lower courts for violating the Roe decision. The new decision was widely anticipated after a draft opinion was leaked in early May.
The court now allows states to set their own laws. In Maryland, a person is permitted to have an abortion until the fetus is viable outside the womb, considered at about 24 weeks, and later to protect the health or life of the pregnant person or for a fetal anomaly. Women already had long traveled to Maryland for more complicated procedures that take place later in pregnancy.
Marylanders on both sides of the political aisle are interested in keeping abortion legal in some form, an early June Baltimore Sun Media and University of Baltimore poll showed. Among Democrats surveyed, 62% support legalizing abortion under any circumstance and 27% under certain circumstances. And while only 18% of Republican respondents said they support complete legalization, 62% were in favor of having abortion remain an option in certain situations. Only 15% of Republicans and 5% of Democrats said they would like to see abortion banned.
Maryland’s standard was adopted by the state in 1991, and a year later a ballot referendum codified the policy, ensuring access to abortions even if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Further efforts to enshrine access to abortions in the state constitution as recently as 2022 have failed.
But this year, the Abortion Care Access Act passed and requires the state’s Medicaid system for low-income residents to cover abortions. Private insurers also must cover the services unless they have a religious or legal exemption.
The legislation allows nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and physician assistants to perform abortions, and provides $3.5 million to train such clinicians. The money will become available starting next year after Gov. Larry Hogan refused to release it early because he opposes non-doctors performing abortions.
Hogan, a Republican, vetoed the legislation but was overridden and the law will go into effect Friday.
Nurses and physician assistants already are allowed to prescribe medication abortions, responsible for an estimated half of abortions now. They will need to train with doctors to become competent to perform traditional abortions, but no certification is necessary.
After decades of struggle, victory
Groups opposing abortion have been working toward the court decision for years on moral or religious grounds.
On Facebook, Del. Nino Mangione, a Baltimore County Republican, called himself “a proud pro-life legislator” and praised the Supreme Court’s decision, which passed 6-3. He called for the legislature to do more to help mothers who proceed with pregnancies.
“They decided to return the power to the people in each state and their elected representatives,” he said. “In all likelihood this will not change things in Maryland. However, I do believe if people were aware of how radical this state and others have become, even some proudly allowing the evil practice of late-term abortion…, more people may change their perspective and more children’s lives would be saved.”
Sen. Jason Gallion, a Republican of Harford and Cecil counties, also said Friday on Facebook: “I applaud today’s decision by the SCOTUS to overturn Roe v. Wade and let individual states make policy decisions. Life is absolutely precious and must be defended. While laws in Maryland are unlikely to change I will always advocate for life because every life is a gift from God.”
Del. Joseph Boteler, a Baltimore County Republican, posted a picture of a sonogram monitor with overlaid script reading “ROE IS OVERTURNED” and the comment: “God is awesome! A curse has been lifted from over our nation.”
U.S. Rep, Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican, tweeted that the court “got it right in overturning the incorrectly decided decades-old Roe opinion that treated young human life as not worthy of protection under our Constitution.”
In 2021, Harris, whose district includes Harford County and the Eastern Shore, voted against legislation that would guarantee abortion protections nationally.
The Roman Catholic church, long opposed to abortion, welcomed the decision.
“I am very thankful to hear this,” Baltimore Archbishop William Lori said in a statement. “I think it is good news for our nation. I think it is good news for the cause of life and I also think it is a moment for us, as Catholics, as believers, as people of goodwill, now to redouble our efforts to surround women in difficult pregnancies with love and care and services.
“So it is both a victory but also a challenge,” Lori continued. “It means for Catholics in Maryland that we have to work all the harder to convince everyone about the sanctity of life and to love both the mother and the child.”
Fresh concerns for women
Other lawmakers, medical groups and activists criticized the court ruling for taking away rights of women, potentially harming those who were raped or develop grave health conditions. Medical groups note that some women who miscarry their pregnancies need abortion procedures.
Many also cited the likely impact on low-income people, primarily Black women and other minority groups, who typically have the hardest time accessing services. Planned Parenthood’s Nelson said disparities will grow as clinics in some states close altogether, reducing women’s access to health services generally.
Mary Fissell, professor of the history of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said the court decision, formally Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, is part of a historical “cycle of tolerance and repression” when it comes to abortion.
There’s evidence the procedure, while illegal, was tolerated in Baltimore from the 1920s to the mid-1940s, followed by a national “crackdown” in the 1950s as backlash against women who worked during World War II. Birth defects from viral infections led the medical and faith community to seek a return to the procedures in the 1950s in Maryland, which liberalized abortion law in the 1960s. Roe v. Wade in the 1970s enshrined the right until Friday.
Now “it’s the women with fewer resources who are going to get really hurt,” Fissell said. “And women will die, because what we see over the long haul is women will always terminate. Always. It’s always an option. There’s always pregnancies they can’t carry through. And they’ll go back to the unsafe methods. And that’s just heartbreaking.”
Margaret Johnson, law professor and co-director of the Center on Applied Feminism at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said other rights also are now at stake.
She called Friday a “demolition day” for privacy rights protecting intimate relationships, especially because Justice Clarence Thomas called for a reevaluation of previous court rulings that enshrined the right to contraceptives and gay marriage in the United States.
”This is the beginning of tearing down this entire line of cases and law that has protected people’s ability to form families and have intimate relationships and deal with their bodies in the way that they choose to,” Johnson said.
The Morning Sun
Federal and local lawmakers are now looking at options to counter the abortion decision, including U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat.
He and other abortion rights supporters fear if Republicans gain a majority in Congress they will pass a national law banning abortions, which would override Maryland’s law.
“History will show this to be one of the worst decisions ever by the Supreme Court of the United States,” said Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott announced shortly after the Roe opinion became public that the city would provide $300,000 in grants to organizations offering abortion and family planning services to help create a “safe haven for care seekers” from within and beyond the city. The City Council has passed a resolution designating Baltimore as an “abortion rights protection jurisdiction.”
The future, Scott said, will come down to who votes.
“This election cycle couldn’t be more important,” he said. “If, like me, you support women’s rights, make sure your voice is heard on the ballot.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.