Maryland House Speaker Hopes to Codify Abortion Rights Into State Constitution

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan dismissed the need for a constitutional amendment but said a ballot referendum “sounds like a great idea.”

[Photo: Michael E. Busch]
House Speaker Michael Busch's proposal would make the law more difficult to dislodge should it go before voters and pass in the 2020 general election. Comcast Creative / YouTube

Maryland’s House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) plans to propose a state constitutional amendment in the next legislative session to codify abortion rights into the state constitution.

Maryland legislators passed a law protecting abortion rights in 1991 and voters confirmed the legislation via ballot measure in 1992 with 62 percent of the vote after more than two years of debate. But the referendum did not write the decision into the state’s constitution, so it could be changed or modified by state lawmakers. Busch’s proposal would make the law more difficult to dislodge should it go before voters and pass in the 2020 election.

“With the Supreme Court currently hanging in the balance and increasing hostility towards women’s reproductive rights by this federal Administration, we must continue to ensure that a woman’s right to choose is protected in the State of Maryland,” he said in a statement. “An amendment to the State constitution will safeguard this important right so that it cannot be changed absent the will of the voters.”

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who has long opposed abortion rights, dismissed the need for a constitutional amendment but said a ballot referendum “sounds like a great idea.”

Maryland’s state law protecting abortion rights would not be affected by changes at the federal level, Amelia Chassé, communications director at Hogan’s office told Rewire.News in an email. “Governor Hogan said during his campaign that he would uphold Maryland’s existing laws protecting these rights, and he has kept that promise. He supports the right of voters to decide whether to adopt these protections—which are already law in Maryland—as a constitutional amendment.”

Democratic nominee for governor Ben Jealous immediately supported the amendment. His campaign in a statement criticized Hogan’s “history of hostility towards women’s reproductive rights” and said he supports enshrining the right to choose in the state statute.

“In the Trump era, Maryland’s governor must have the courage to take every step possible to ensure a woman’s right to choose is protected, and that reproductive health is never a political bargaining chip. As governor, I’d support the Speaker’s efforts to stand up for Maryland values,” Jealous said.

The Maryland Democratic Party criticized Hogan’s dismissal of the effort. “It should be a giant red flag for every Maryland woman that Larry Hogan refuses to support a constitutional amendment that will protect a woman’s right to control her reproductive health,” said Kathleen Matthews, party chairperson, in a press release.

Busch, the longest-serving house speaker in Maryland history, made his proposal on the heels of an openly anti-choice president nominating conservative Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. President Trump campaigned on a promise to nominate judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that legalized abortion in the United States. Several states have responded to protect abortion access at the local level, including Massachusetts which recently passed the NASTY Women Act.

Hogan has also been criticized by Democrats for staying silent on the Kavanaugh nomination as he runs for re-election. Last Thursday, Matthews joined Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Susan Turnbull, state Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s), and former Maryland gubernatorial candidate Krish Vignarajah to urge Hogan to support Busch’s amendment, during a press call. They said Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court is a threat to Maryland’s laws protecting women’s rights.

Despite having an anti-choice Republican governor, Democrats control the house and the senate and the speaker is confident both chambers would approve putting the question on the ballot for voters to decide.

The Maryland Catholic Conference called the effort “divisive” and announced in an op-ed published Monday in the Baltimore Sun that it will work to defeat the proposal should it move forward. Given that recent efforts to curtail abortion have failed in Maryland, including a handful of anti-choice bills introduced this session, it’s likely that Busch’s amendment could generate the required three-fifths votes in both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly needed to make it on the ballot.

The current state statute stands to protect abortion rights for residents if Maryland maintains its pro-choice majority, but a constitutional amendment could also be subject to repeal, advocates warned.

A state constitutional amendment is “a very serious undertaking” and advocates plan to examine this more after the November elections to see if it would be “the right move” for Maryland, Diana Philip, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, told Rewire.News. “We are aware of concerns raised about the prospect of having a second-term Republican governor in office, which could fuel attempts to restrict access to abortion care in our state.”