Since a draft U.S. Supreme Court majority opinion overturning abortion rights in Roe v. Wade leaked last week, a group of Marylanders has started a push to repeal a bill that the General Assembly recently passed allowing health practitioners besides physicians — such as nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and physician assistants — to provide abortion services.
A handful of supporters of The Campaign to Protect Women, which formed last week, gathered in Lawyers’ Mall in Annapolis on Wednesday to launch a petition drive to bring House Bill 937 to a referendum. If the advocates succeed in putting the question on the ballot in November, Maryland voters can choose to essentially veto HB 937, which the General Assembly passed this year.
The law takes effect July 1, expanding insurance coverage for abortion procedures and directing $3.5 million as a mandated annual expense beginning in 2023. But an amendment to the next fiscal year budget could release the funding as soon as July 1 — if Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) agrees. The General Assembly overrode Hogan’s veto of the bill in the final days of the legislative session, and he has so far resisted the funding provision.
According to Maryland law, anyone with a petition signed by at least 69,135 registered voters by June 30, can put any act of the General Assembly on the ballot. One-third of the required signatures, around 23,000, must first be submitted with the Secretary of State by May 31.
The Campaign to Protect Women is aiming to get 25,000 signatures by May 31 and 50,000 more signatures by June 30. Their petition was granted advanced determination by the State Board of Elections last Thursday, said Deborah Brocato, one of the organizers of the Campaign to Protect Women.
“There are serious risks involved with abortion, whether it is surgical or medical, and those risks include serious injury, permanent damage and even death,” said Brocato, who is listed as a nurse on her LinkedIn page. “Women deserve safe, quality medical care that can only be provided by a licensed physician.”
Medical abortion refer to abortions induced by a pill, which accounts for around half of abortions nationwide, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights research group. In 2020, abortions induced by medication accounted for 54% of the procedures nationwide.
Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Washington), who is seeking a House seat to represent Maryland’s 6th District, included the Campaign to Protect Women’s petition in his newsletter sent out on Wednesday afternoon. Parrott has successfully led petition drives to bring measures to the statewide ballot.
“Whether you agree with abortion or not, your tax dollars will be spent to train people to perform abortions and then your tax dollars will be used based on other legislation to perform abortions,” he wrote.
The Campaign to Protect Women also opposes a part of the new state law that requires insurance companies to cover the full expense of abortions at no cost to patients because it requires Marylanders to pay for abortion, Brocato said.
Asked whether the campaign would support a bill that merely expands physician training, Brocato said that only the bill that actually passed the legislature is relevant. “We’re addressing the Abortion Care Access Act and while the intent of the bill was to increase access to abortion, we do not think that women and girls should have to suffer a lowered level of safety when they seek that kind of surgery.”
But Del. Ariana Kelly (D-Montgomery), the lead sponsor of HB 937, argued that expanding access to abortion care advances women’s health because it allows Marylanders to receive abortion care through their trusted health care providers.
“If you ask obstetricians and gynecologists in Maryland, they will tell you that this legislation was their number one priority for protecting women’s health,” Kelly said. The Maryland Chapter of American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists supported the bill this year.
“You shouldn’t need to have to go to a specialized clinic several hours away, take extra time off of work and be stigmatized and shamed and walk and walk the gauntlet of protestors who are calling you a murderer — none of that is necessary,” Kelly said.
“It’s good for public health to ensure that abortion is treated just like any other health care.”
Melissa Deckman, the chair of political science at Washington College, said that even if it is not too onerous to petition for a referendum, the measure probably would not have an effect on the election dynamic overall if it makes the ballot, because Maryland is largely a Democratic state.
In fact, the last time the state had a ballot initiative on abortion in 1992, Marylanders voted to ensure that access to abortion would still be legal regardless of whether the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
“It’s not unlikely that a referendum campaign would be successful and appear on the ballot, but I think it’s a far more uphill battle for folks who oppose abortion” to see Maryland voters overturn an abortion rights law passed by the General Assembly, Deckman said.
A few hours before the Campaign to Protect Women launched its petition drive in Annapolis, State Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D), a candidate for governor, said that he does not think the state should wait a year to free up funds meant to train health professionals to provide abortion care. Hogan indicated last week that he would not release the funding this year.
“I know you’ve stated your position on this, but I would sincerely, respectfully hope that somehow down the road we can reconsider that decision,” Franchot said, sitting next to Hogan during a Board of Public Works meeting Wednesday morning.
“While there may be different opinions on the question of whether abortion should be legal, I hope there’s bipartisan consensus that if an abortion does take place, it should be done safely — that’s exactly what freeing up these training program funds will do.”
Maryland is the 15th state to allow trained medical professionals other than physicians to perform abortions.
On Wednesday afternoon, Democrats in the U.S. Senate failed to get enough votes to overcome a filibuster and pass legislation to safeguard abortion rights nationwide.
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