The House of Delegates and Senate moved forward Friday with a bill to protect abortion under the state constitution, meaning the question is likely to reach Maryland voters in 2024.
Sponsored by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, and Democratic Senate President Bill Ferguson of Baltimore, the bill would allow Marylanders to vote during next year’s general election to enshrine access to abortion in the constitution.
The legislation seeks to guarantee to “every person ... the fundamental right to reproductive freedom,” including the ability to “prevent, continue or end one’s own pregnancy” without interference from the state. Though the word “abortion” is not in the bill, its protection is implied under the right to end a pregnancy.
Delegates passed Jones’ version of the legislation, House Bill 705, without debate Friday on a vote of 99-37. Senators gave Senate Bill 798 preliminary approval and the Senate is expected to fully approve the legislation early next week.
Because the bill seeks to create a referendum on Maryland’s ballot during the 2024 election, it does not need the signature of Gov. Wes Moore, though the Democratic governor has expressed support for the measure.
Sen. Dawn Gile, a freshman Democratic lawmaker from Anne Arundel County, defended the bill in her chamber as members of the Senate’s minority party attempted to alter its language and intent.
Republicans offered seven amendments, all of which were rejected. They included a measure offered by Senate Minority Whip Justin Ready to ensure people would be free to make choices to continue or terminate their pregnancies without being coerced by health care providers.
“You should feel free to make these decisions without coercion,” argued the Republican, who represents parts of Carroll and Frederick counties.
Gile read the definition of “freedom” on the Senate floor.
“Freedom already contemplates freedom of coercion,” she said in response to Ready.
Sen. Bryan Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican, proposed an amendment to protect the right to abortion access, but to specify it would “not include the right to terminate a pregnancy after viability, unless it is necessary to protect the right of the woman or in cases of medical emergency,” the amendment read.
Under Maryland law, abortions may be performed until a fetus reaches viability, considered to be at about 24 weeks.
The bill’s official title is the “Declaration of Rights - Right to Reproductive Freedom.” But Simonaire called it the “Unrestricted Reproductive Freedom Act.”
“Read this bill. You won’t see the word ‘abortion,’ you won’t see the word ‘kill’ — you won’t even see the word ‘baby,’” he said. “That’s why this amendment is needed.”
Simonaire compared abortion to the death penalty, arguing that Democratic lawmakers display more compassion for people convicted of murder than they do for babies. The Democrat-led General Assembly voted in 2013 to approve Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley’s bill to repeal the death penalty. Simonaire also pointed to a state law that charges people with homicide for killing a viable fetus when the person who’s pregnant is also killed.
“Maryland only offers protection for viability depending on who kills it,” Simonaire said.
Gile countered that those who are pregnant, like the people who testified before her in the Senate Finance Committee, also deserve compassion. Many are faced with a difficult decision of whether to terminate a wanted pregnancy after having “picked out a name” or “painted the walls in a nursery,” she said.
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“We cannot stand in their shoes,” Gile explained. “But what we can do is we can trust women. We trust them to make their own decisions” and to do what’s best for themselves and their families.
The amendment failed on a vote of 13-33.
Simonaire offered another amendment that would amend the bill’s language to clarify that a right to reproductive freedom would not include the ability for minors to undergo gender confirmation surgery without consent from their parents. Simonaire alleged that kids “across America and the world” whose brains have not finished developing are making major medical decisions without their parents’ permission.
Gile said that there “are very few exceptions” where minors can agree to medical treatment without parental consent.
“Gender reassignment surgery is not one of those exceptions,” she said.
The amendment failed on a vote of 14-32.
A poll by The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore found an overwhelming number of likely November 2022 voters favored a state constitutional amendment to try to safeguard the procedure.