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Maryland voters to see constitutional referendum on abortion rights

Lawmakers send a proposed constitutional amendment to voters as they advance other bills to make the state a safe place for abortion

(Mark Gail/The Washington Post)
5 min

Maryland voters will decide whether to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution next year, the General Assembly decided Thursday, placing Maryland in a wave of deep-blue states erecting defenses around abortion access as other states restrict or criminalize the procedure.

The 2024 referendum — expected to pass because of broad public support for abortion rights in Maryland — is among protective measures being advanced this session by lawmakers spurred to act by restrictions on abortion approved elsewhere.

Maryland Democrats who pushed for putting reproductive rights into the state constitution also have given preliminary approval to legislation to shield patients and providers from criminal laws passed in antiabortion states, as well as to hide abortion care in digital medical records.

Both of those bills have cleared preliminary votes in both chambers, and Gov. Wes Moore (D) promised to sign them, saying he wants to make Maryland “a safe haven for abortion.”

State-level leaders across the country who support abortion rights fear court rulings and actions in other states could erode protections within their jurisdictions, and they say the wave of restrictions already has had a chilling effect. Democratic attorneys general filed a lawsuit trying to secure access to mifepristone, an abortion pill, in an effort to counter a ruling expected in Texas. Governors including Moore joined a 21-state “Reproductive Freedom Alliance” led by California to share strategies on countering antiabortion efforts.

Those laws are aimed at preventing law enforcement outside Maryland from bringing action against medical providers, pharmacists and patients involved in abortion care that is legal in a state. Those actions could include lawsuits or the revocation of medical licenses for providers who operate in multiple states, advocates of the laws said.

“There’s been a concerted attack on reproductive health throughout the nation,” said Michelle Siri, executive director of the Women’s Law Center of Maryland, who advocates for “shielding” laws she said will “prevent the long arm of another state from reaching into Maryland and intimidating our patients and our providers.”

Until last year, Maryland lawmakers had not brought a bill debating abortion access to the floor of the General Assembly since 1991, when the body voted to protect the right to the procedure for any reason up until viability, and under certain circumstances afterward. (Voters upheld that law with 62 percent of the vote when abortion foes petitioned it to referendum in 1992.)

Just three other states have explicit abortion protections in their constitutions — California, Vermont and Michigan, all passed in November. Four states expressly prohibit abortion rights in their state constitutions — Alabama, Louisiana, West Virginia and Tennessee, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights advocacy organization.

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The push to safeguard abortion access is a result of last year’s Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that put states in control of reproductive laws, overruling 50 years of federal abortion protections established in Roe v. Wade. A mottled landscape of state-by-state abortion access followed: within two months of the June decision, 1 in 3 American women lost access to abortion in their home states, according to a Washington Post tally.

Most Maryland voters support abortion rights.

A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll in September found 78 percent supported a state constitutional amendment protecting the right to have an abortion in Maryland. And 67 percent opposed the Supreme Court decision that there is not a constitutional right to abortion.

In September, West Virginia, which surrounds the northwestern flank of Maryland, passed a near total ban of the procedure. Maryland abortion providers and aid groups say there has been an increase in demand and a chilling effect for providers.

Priya Hay-Chatterjee, a spokesperson for the nonprofit Baltimore Abortion Fund that helps people access the procedure, told lawmakers that in the second half of 2022 — after the court ruling — the organization spent nearly six times more supporting traveling clients than in the first half of the year. She said defending an out-of-state lawsuit because they helped a nonresident get access to abortion “could bankrupt small organizations” like theirs.

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“We literally cannot afford to take the threat of litigation from other states lightly,” she said.

With state lawmakers now on the front lines of a rapidly changing national landscape on abortion access, a fourth bill poised for final passage Thursday would require easy access to birth control on college campuses.

Maryland Democrats seek to create ‘safe haven for abortion’

Abortion rights activists are tracking constitutional amendment efforts in a dozen states.

At least eight states plus D.C. have already passed shielding laws that refuse to extradite people over abortion lawsuits filed out of state. Some of those laws also refuse to recognize out-of-state subpoenas or to cooperate with out-of-state investigations.

Maryland’s shielding law, which could get a final vote as soon as this week, would also make it illegal to raise malpractice insurance premiums for abortion providers targeted by out-of-state laws.

“It essentially creates a shield around our state for the providers and those seeking access,” said Sen. Will Smith (D-Montgomery), who sponsored the law. “States have tried to create moats around themselves.”

Another aspect of the defense is a bill that would automatically hide patients’ records for abortion care from providers outside Maryland. If a Texas patient, for example, traveled to Maryland for an abortion but later sought care for a related or unrelated issue in an emergency room, those doctors could see electronic notes about the patient’s abortion. If passed, Maryland’s law would automatically hide that information unless a patient requests that it be public.

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

This report has been updated with additional context.