On Feb. 6th, House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D – Baltimore) and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D – Baltimore City) introduced House Bill 705 and Senate Bill 798, respectively. Both bills are known as the Right to Reproductive Freedom Act.
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HB 705 was immediately referred to the House’s Health and Government Operations committee, while SB 798 was referred to the Senate Finance Committee. Both bills have broad support as HB 705 has 81 House co-sponsors and SB 798 has 20 Senate co-sponsors.
The Right to Reproductive Freedom Act makes an addition to the Declaration of Rights section under Maryland’s Constitution. The constitutional amendment would provide that every person has the fundamental right to reproductive freedoms including the ability to make and effectuate decisions to prevent, continue, or end one’s own pregnancy.
The bill requires passage by three-fifths of all the members elected to each chamber concurrently. If passed, it will then be decided by Maryland voters in the next general election in Nov. 2024.
On Feb. 21st, Jones introduced the bill to the House’s Health and Government Operations Committee. He stated that in 1992, voters approved a ballot measure to legalize access to abortion as a matter of state law, which has remained the law of the land for over three decades. Since the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, Jones is worried that Maryland is vulnerable to overzealous prosecutors and neighboring states that might target the state’s providers by trying to restrict access and close providers’ doors.
“It’s hard to believe that Maryland would pass abortion restrictions like we’ve seen in West Virginia or Texas, but the Dobbs decision has left our state vulnerable,” Jones said. “Governors can use the power of the purse that limits access to reproductive freedom. These are not hypothetical scenarios. Last year, we passed the Abortion Care Access Act, which included 3.5 million dollars to address Maryland’s abortion providers shortage to train more providers. Former Gov. Larry Hogan withheld that funding, which wasn’t released until this year.”
Jones described her bill as being necessary to enshrine and preserve reproductive freedoms as a fundamental freedom, which should not be used as a bargaining chip in the future and so it could not be slowly chipped away. Jones believes that they are taking a necessary step to strengthen Maryland’s freedoms so that these rights can never be up for debate.
The committee meeting on HB 705 lasted over two hours, during which the committee heard heated and passionate testimony discussing the positives and negatives of the bill. The committee heard testimony from eight supportive individuals and 24 opposed individuals.
“The bill provides Marylanders with the highest possible level of reproductive freedom,” Karen Nelson, CEO of Maryland’s Planned Parenthood, said. “The bill ensures the right of individuals to make and effectuate their own decisions about their own healthcare, abortion, birth control, and whether to continue a pregnancy.”
Last session, Jones introduced the exact same bill, which passed in the House with the required three-fifths majority. However, the bill didn’t receive a hearing on the Senate floor. Consequently, last session, the Right to Reproductive Freedom Act died in the Senate as the legislative session ended.
Nevertheless, if members voted on party lines, the Right to Reproductive Freedom Act could gather enough votes to pass the three-fifths majority threshold because Democrats control the Senate (34 D – 13 R) and House (104 D – 39 R). The constitutional amendment does not need the governor’s approval, but Gov. Wes Moore is supportive of this measure and other reproductive freedom legislation.
“As long as I am governor, our home will be a safe haven for abortion access,” Moore said. “While some states have decided to move toward restricting reproductive rights, I can assure you, we will protect them.”
HB 705 awaits a vote in the Health and Government Operations committee, while its Senate counterpart SB 798 awaits a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee.