Maryland voters expected to decide abortion access question on 2024 ballot

Tribune Content Agency

BALTIMORE — Marylanders are expected to vote in 2024 on whether to enshrine access to abortion in the state constitution, following the House of Delegates’ passage of legislation championed by Speaker Adrienne A. Jones.

The House voted 98-38 Thursday to pass Senate Bill 798, which was drafted to provide voters the chance to guarantee “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.

The House passed the bill for the final time without discussion. It didn’t amend the legislation, so the bill does not need to return to the Senate for further approval.

Its identical twin, Jones’ House Bill 705, is poised to pass out of the Senate chamber Friday morning after receiving preliminary approval Wednesday. That is expected to be the legislation’s final, official vote.

“Today, we’ve taken another leap forward in guaranteeing Marylanders the right to abortion access,” Jones said in a statement Thursday. “Passing our bill to put a constitutional amendment for reproductive freedom on the ballot gives Marylanders the final say in their reproductive health care decisions and makes sure our reproductive liberty is never up for negotiation.”

Because the bills would create a ballot referendum, they don’t need approval from Democratic Gov. Wes Moore, though he came out strongly in support of enshrining access in the constitution early in his 2022 campaign.

This is the second year that Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat and the first woman to serve as speaker, has led the effort to ensure abortion remains legal in Maryland regardless of future U.S. Supreme Court rulings. The legislation passed out of the House during the 2022 legislative session, but didn’t get a vote in the Senate chamber.

Then, in June 2022, the Supreme Court removed U.S. constitutional protections on abortion, overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling. Jones vowed to push again for further protections in the Maryland constitution, and was joined by Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, who sponsored the 2023 bill in his chamber.

In 1991, the General Assembly passed legislation allowing abortions to be performed in Maryland until a fetus reaches viability, considered to be at about 24 weeks. After that, patients can receive abortion care only to protect their health or if there’s a fetal anomaly. This law was codified through a 1992 ballot referendum, meaning it couldn’t be undone regardless of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But even before the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision on Roe v. Wade, abortion rights supporters argued the procedure was difficult to obtain for many women and that adding the right to the Maryland constitution would safeguard against any future political efforts to curtail or restrict it.

The 2024 referendum also seeks to guarantee Marylanders maintain the right to become pregnant, access birth control and receive fertility treatment, among other measures.

The late House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Jones’ predecessor, sponsored a bill in 2019 to enshrine abortion access in the constitution, but ultimately withdrew it.

Michelle Siri, the executive director of the Women’s Law Center of Maryland, sat on a panel of expert witnesses who testified earlier this year for Jones’ bill before the House Health and Government Operations Committee. Siri told The Baltimore Sun in an interview Thursday that the passage of the ballot referendum has “been a long time coming” and that it’s “unfortunate that we need to be here.”

With the amendment’s fate expected to soon rest in the hands of voters, Siri said she feels confident they will pass it during the 2024 presidential election.

“Marylanders have historically supported protecting reproductive rights,” said Jones.

A poll by The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore found that an overwhelming number of likely voters in Maryland’s 2022 gubernatorial election favored a constitutional amendment to try to safeguard the procedure.

“We know that the overwhelming number of Marylanders support reproductive rights and reproductive freedom, so I’m confident it’s going to pass,” Siri explained. “It’s going to be hard work — we can’t take it for granted, but I know that Maryland voters want this.”

House Health and Government Operations Committee Chair Joseline Peña-Melnyk, a Democrat representing Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, credited Jones for ushering the bill to the finish line. Peña-Melnyk, who led the bill’s debate on the House floor, said in an interview that the constitutional amendment is “the single most important piece of legislation about reproductive rights in our lifetime.”

“This bill provides the framework for the fundamental right to bodily autonomy, and that’s very important,” she said.

“I’m very proud of the work we’ve done here in Maryland” and the work done by the speaker, Peña-Melnyk said.