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Instead of restricting abortion rights, improve protections for pregnant people | COMMENTARY

Legislation in the Maryland General Assembly would improve protections for pregnant people.
Legislation in the Maryland General Assembly would improve protections for pregnant people.(Comstock/Getty Images)

You probably have noticed lately increasing attention about abortion rights in our country – mostly about attempts to restrict those rights. The Trump/Pence administration has signaled repeatedly its intentions to subvert Roe v. Wade through federal policies, regulations and court appointments, while encouraging local officials and state legislators to introduce measures to stop abortion care access.

Although Maryland codified the right to abortion in 1991 and affirmed it by the 1992 Question 6 ballot referendum, anti-choice legislators in our state feel emboldened. This year at least 11 anti-abortion bills have been introduced into the Maryland General Assembly.

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But where is the attention about ensuring the health and rights of individuals who want to bear a child? Maternal mortality in our state is on the rise, with the 2011-2015 rate 19% higher than the previous five years. Deaths of pregnant and postpartum patients are increasing nationally and Maryland continues to have a higher maternal mortality rate than the U.S. average. Black women in Maryland have a maternal mortality rate that is more than twice that of white women.

It seems amazing that we have not been doing enough in Maryland to improve the rights of pregnant people who choose to carry to term. However, this legislative session could end up being the most forward-thinking one in a very long time to help pregnant women, girls, trans youth and adults, or any person who is choosing to start or add to their existing families through childbirth.

First, our state should do more to better accommodate pregnant workers. Roughly half of the Maryland workforce is comprised of women, most of childbearing age. Under current law, employees have the right to request simple accommodations to continue job duties when a pregnancy has become complicated, resulting in a temporary disability. However, we need legislation to create the right to request reasonable accommodations to keep a pregnancy healthy before there are complications.

This session legislation (H.B. 523/S.B. 225) seeks to do just that for state employees. After we see that the sky will not fall after enactment, perhaps all pregnant workers will have the same rights one day. Maryland may also finally pass legislation (H.B. 839/S.B. 539) this year establishing paid family and medical leave. The right to access paid leave is important for postpartum recovery and bonding with infants (reducing risks of child abuse or neglect),and financially necessary for new parenting workers who are breadwinners or co-breadwinners in their families.

On another front, the state needs to strengthen the rights of pregnant incarcerated individuals. For the past few years, the coalition Reproductive Justice Inside has worked diligently to help to pass laws that mandate fair access to free menstrual hygiene products, provide written pregnancy-related healthcare policies and ban solitary confinement of pregnant inmates. This year legislation (H.B. 524/S.B. 255) would also require timely healthcare screenings to identify high-risk pregnancies and offer assessments for mental health and substance use disorders. If released while still pregnant, the patient will be connected to medical care providers in the community to help with maintaining a healthy pregnancy.

Advocates are also pushing for passage of legislation (H.B. 1067/S.B. 914) to authorize insurance and Medicaid coverage of doulas, trained patient advocates that provide physical and emotional support throughout pregnancy, labor and delivery and postpartum recovery. Increased access to doulas in low-income, underserved communities is one strong answer to the public health crisis of maternal and infant mortality.

Lastly, we need to stop limiting education opportunities for pregnant youth. Nationally, close to half of female school dropouts and one-third of male dropouts report that becoming a parent was a factor in their decision to leave school.

Each year from 2014 through 2018, approximately 800 babies were born to youth ages 15 to 17 in Maryland, and another 2,200 to those 18 to 19 years-old. We currently have no way to collect information about their graduation rates.

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Legislation calls (H.B. 1298/S.B. 791) for school staff to help coordinate available on-site or off-site child care, transportation and lactation support, and enforce the rights for pregnant and parenting students to take excused absences for prenatal and postpartum care, as well as for when their babies are sick. The legislation also seeks to assist school districts to collect data and develop strategies to help these students realize both their family formation and educational goals.

We look forward to this legislative session to protecting the right to choose if, when, and how we form our families, and to parent in safety, in good health and with dignity.

Diana Philip (diana@prochoicemd.org) is executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland.

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