House lawmakers heard politically and emotionally charged testimony Tuesday after Speaker Adrienne A. Jones reintroduced a bill to protect abortion access in Maryland’s constitution.
“If we want to ensure reproductive freedom for generations to come, we must act definitively, we must act explicitly, and a constitutional amendment is our strongest way to do that,” Michelle Siri, executive director of the Women’s Law Center of Maryland, told the House Health and Government Operations Committee. “It is not enough to be just ‘pro-choice’ in Maryland anymore.”
Under the legislation, Marylanders would be able to vote in 2024 to enshrine a “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” isn’t in the bill, its protection is implied under the right to end a pregnancy.
Maryland enacted a law in 1991 allowing abortions to be performed until a fetus reaches viability, considered to be at about 24 weeks. After that, abortions can be performed only if there’s a fetal anomaly or to protect the health of the pregnant person. Voters codified the law in a 1992 referendum, guaranteeing Marylanders keep access to abortion regardless of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“For over 30 years, that right has stood as settled law,” Jones told the committee. “But a lot has changed. In just one year, the entire landscape has shifted.”
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned 50 years of legal precedent with its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. That left abortion policy to the will of individual states.
Jones said that “makes Maryland health care providers targets for overzealous, out-of-state organizations and prosecutors.”
“They will use every tool at their disposal to close our providers and restrict access to health care,” she said.
Most of those who came to testify before the committee during the nearly two-hour hearing opposed the legislation. They cited religion, the rights of parents of minors who are pregnant, and a need to focus on providing those who are pregnant with wraparound services.
“This bill is not about protecting a woman’s right to choose abortion,” said Laura Bogley, executive director of Maryland Right to Life. “This bill is about protecting the profits of the multibillion-dollar abortion empire at the expense of women’s health and safety.”
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Kristen Day of Democrats for Life America said the legislation would harm people in need who are pregnant because it doesn’t provide them with resources for healthier, more equitable lives.
“The message is clear: Women who have resources have a choice; women without resources have abortion,” she said.
The only members of the committee to ask questions of any panel were Republicans, who focused on abortions later in pregnancy despite provisions in state law that limit it and federal data showing the vast majority of U.S. abortions occur in the first trimester, with just 1% performed at 21 weeks or more.
Harford County Del. Kathy Szeliga suggested amending the Maryland bill to prevent abortions later in pregnancy that would involve what Szeliga described as “full-term, healthy babies.” Anne Arundel County Del. Brian Chisholm wanted to know whether a decision to move forward with an abortion would be up to a patient and a health care provider regardless of how far along a pregnancy was.
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In response, Planned Parenthood Maryland Executive Director and CEO Karen Nelson urged Szeliga and Chisholm to listen to the testimony of Ashley Esposito and the Rev. Shannon Sullivan. They have each had multiple abortions because their pregnancies were nonviable.
Esposito, of Baltimore, said she was about to send shower invitations when she was told her baby had no amniotic fluid or kidneys.
“This is a pregnancy that I wanted so badly,” Esposito said. “I had an abortion knowing what my body was doing. I could not live with that. I know without access to reproductive care, I would have been further traumatized or I would have taken my own life.”
Esposito received a second abortion the following year because of a problem related to a genetic disease she carries. After later undergoing in vitro fertilization, she carried a pregnancy to term.
Sullivan, a Frederick County pastor, is pregnant for the sixth time and has one living child. She said she needed abortions during two pregnancies.
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“Access to abortion, especially for those of us in the pregnancy loss community, is about protecting our bodies and our families from further harm in already terrible circumstances,” she said. ”It is about reaching for what little bit of life we can scrounge up in grief.”
The language of Jones’s 2023 bill is nearly identical to one she sponsored during the 2022 legislative session. The House passed that bill, but after the Senate Finance Committee heard it, it did not get a vote in the Senate.
Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, has said his chamber’s priority last year was to pass a law to expand the number of abortion providers in the state. The Abortion Care Access Act requires the state to annually budget $3.5 million to fund a training program for clinicians interested in offering abortion services beyond medication.
Ferguson has committed to passing Jones’ bill in 2023.
Following last summer’s Supreme Court decision, Democrats pleaded for Gov. Larry Hogan to release the training money afforded under the Abortion Care Access Act early, but he refused. Democratic Gov. Wes Moore, who supports Jones’ constitutional amendment, released the money last month, just days after he took office.
Jones called Hogan’s choice to withhold the funding the governor’s “power of the purse,” and pointed to it as a further reason to pass her bill.
“We can’t uphold the integrity of reproductive freedom when access to reproductive services could ... be limited with the stroke of a pen,” she testified.