Maryland governor, officials supporting abortion protections

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore joined lawmakers Thursday to announce support for a series of measures aimed at further protecting abortion rights in that state. (Feb 9)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Maryland Gov. Wes Moore and top state lawmakers announced support Thursday for a package of measures protecting abortion rights, including a state constitutional amendment.

House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson, who are both Democrats, joined the governor at a news conference to back a measure that would protect patients and providers in Maryland from criminal, civil and administrative penalties relating to abortion bans or restrictions in other states. Dozens of senators and delegates stood by them at a crowded announcement.

“We’re going to make sure that Maryland is a safe haven for abortion rights long after I’m governor of this state,” Moore said.

Jones, who is sponsoring the constitutional amendment, noted that nearly half of the states are banning or heavily restricting abortion, including neighboring West Virginia. The speaker also emphasized the importance of protecting privacy.

“For the purpose of reproductive liberty and the safety of Maryland patients, providers and volunteers, what happens in Maryland is going to stay in Maryland,” Jones said. “The health care decisions we make about our bodies are deeply personal and should be between a person and their doctor.”

In the package before lawmakers, a data-privacy bill will aim to protect medical and insurance records on reproductive health in electronic health information exchanges that can be shared quickly and widely across state lines.

“And in states that are incentivizing private citizens to turn on individuals who are providing any sort of assistance to those who are choosing to have an abortion we could be putting our health care providers and our patients seeking care in Maryland at risk,” said Sen. Shelly Hettleman, a Democrat who is sponsoring the bill.

Patients would have to give permission for the records to be released, under the bill.

Del. Ariana Kelly is sponsoring a measure to ensure public colleges and universities in Maryland have a plan for student access near campuses to birth control, including emergency contraception and abortion pills.

Kelly said the state already is seeing an increase in patients from other states after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year to strike down Roe v. Wade.

“We do know in Maryland, like in many states that provide access to abortion, there has been an increase in our patient load for some of our providers, particularly providers that border West Virginia,” Kelly, a Democrat, said, adding that Maryland also is seeing more patients from Texas.

Democrats hold a 102-39 majority over Republicans in the House, and they have a 34-13 advantage in the Senate. It would take a three-fifths vote in both chambers to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot for voters to have the final say next year.

Ferguson said the constitutional amendment “affords the highest level of protection against attacks on reproductive liberties and bodily autonomy.”

“We protect freedom from prosecution and persecution from antiquated opinions and regressive policies, and we protect freedom from political interference, of political whims denying individuals’ right to self-determination,” the Senate president said.

In November, Vermont became the first state to approve a constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights.

The right to abortion already is protected in Maryland law. The state approved legislation in 1991 to protect abortion rights if the U.S. Supreme Court allowed abortion to be restricted. The Maryland law was petitioned to the ballot and voters approved the right in 1992 with 62% of the vote.

Moore, a Democrat, demonstrated his support for abortion rights in one of his first acts as governor, when he announced last month that he was releasing $3.5 million in state funds to expand abortion training, money that had been withheld by his predecessor, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

Last year, lawmakers enacted a law over Hogan’s veto to expand abortion access by ending a restriction that only physicians could provide abortions and requiring most insurance plans to cover abortion care without cost. The law removed a legal restriction preventing nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and physician assistants from providing abortions.

Republicans said the constitutional amendment and related package of bills “are just another sign that the Maryland General Assembly is becoming the playground of symbolic gestures.”

“Apparently, last year’s bill that created a massive expansion of abortion services was not enough. While we have yet to fully vet the additional bills proposed today, we are certain that becoming the abortion capital of the United States is not something to aspire to or be proud of,” said Sen. Steve Hershey, the Senate minority leader, and Sen. Justin Ready, the Senate minority whip.