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Maryland Abortion Activists See End of Roe as New Opportunity

Activists on both sides of the abortion issue see the overturning of Roe v. Wade earlier this year as the creation of a new political landscape, one that requires either increased protections or reinforced restrictions.

(TNS) — As Maryland Del. Ariana B. Kelly championed a bill last session to expand access to abortion, not everyone shared her sense that it was urgently needed. The right to terminate a pregnancy, after all, has long been protected by state law.

“A lot of folks were, ‘you guys are crying wolf again,’” said Kelly, a Democrat who represents Montgomery Country.

But that was then, this is now: In June, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that established the constitutional right to abortion. The newly majority-conservative court left the legality of the procedure up to the individual states, triggering an immediate flurry of activism and new laws that now ban or restrict it.

While abortion remains legal in Maryland, those on both sides of the debate see the end of Roe as creating a new political landscape.

Those who support abortion rights say Maryland needs to further strengthen its protections in the face of the threat to the procedure elsewhere in the country. Those who oppose the procedure see an opening to begin chipping away at what they view as the state’s overly lenient laws and practices regarding abortion.

“The conversation is wide-open and everyone is having it here in Maryland,” said Michele Hendrickson, the Sykesville-based strategic initiatives director of the group, Students for Life.

The coming battle is shaping up on several fronts, from the General Assembly to the grassroots level, from the medical to the political.

Abortion rights supporters are coming off a successful effort last legislative session, prior to the Supreme Court decision, to allow other medical professionals such as nurse practitioners to perform the procedure, which previously had to be done by physicians. The legislation, shepherded by Del. Kelly and now-retired State Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat, also requires most insurance providers to cover the procedure at no deductible or other costs to patients.

In the next session, Kelly said, “priority number one” will be a proposal to enshrine the right to abortion in the state’s constitution. Previous attempts to do that over the years have failed, with some seeing it as unnecessary because the right to abortion was codified in state law by a voter referendum in 1992.

“Thirty years ago, we had a statewide referendum. That’s when complacency settled in,” Kelly said. “The world has changed in 30 years.”

With Roe vanquished, abortion opponents say even a state like Maryland could be in for change.

Laura Bogley, director of legislation for Maryland Right to Life, calls the proposed amendment “radical” and questions how it can fly after the Supreme Court removed the constitutional protection of Roe.

“Of course the constitution of the state of Maryland defers to the U.S. Constitution,” she said.

Bogley said that while abortion remains legal in Maryland, and Democrats retain a majority in the General Assembly, she senses “a cultural shift.” While polls such as one conducted by Baltimore Sun Media and the University of Baltimore in June generally show about two-thirds of people support keeping abortion legal at least under certain circumstances, Bogley said opinions are more nuanced than that.

She said polling of younger voters done by a research group, the Institute for Pro-Life Advancement, found that the majority favor limits to when abortions are allowed and when public funds can be spent on them.

If there’s one thing that both sides can agree on, it’s that the November election is critical.

“Elections matter,” said Karen J. Nelson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Maryland.

“People say, ‘Oh we’re so lucky to live in Maryland,’” she said. “It’s not luck, it’s hard work.

“It’s hard work to elect and keep people in office that represent what is best for health care, what is best for abortion rights, what is best for women.”

Hendrickson said Students for Life will participate in voter education and get-out-the-vote efforts.

The organization, which has groups in middle- and high schools and college campuses, promotes alternatives to abortion and support for women who choose to continue their pregnancies, she said. Such services are more important than ever, Hendrickson said.

“We have to be there for women,” she said.

With some states banning or restricting abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, activists on both sides are preparing for an influx of out-of-state women coming to Maryland — something Bogley decries as “abortion tourism.”

Nelson said it’s too soon to gauge how much more demand the state will see for the procedure.

“We are watching the states around us,” Nelson said. “The picture changes every day.”

In recent years, the group has worked to expand its clinics and ramp up staff. The Baltimore Abortion Fund, which helps women with transportation and other costs that might otherwise prevent them from getting the procedure, similarly has been increasing its capacity — it had already been seeing more women coming from out of state.

Nelson expressed concerns that other states will try to target those who cross state lines to access services and Planned Parenthood has been in contact with state and local officials to make sure both patients and providers are protected.

Kelly said how to safeguard providers and out-of-town patients is among the issues raised by the overturning of Roe, which came in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

“There’s a whole slew of questions Dobbs created,” she said. “Data privacy has become a huge issue.

“Dobbs created a fear of how to safely care for out-of-state patients. It creates fear even if the laws are clear. We want to protect the providers.”

Several officials in Maryland responded quickly after Roe was overturned to make clear where they stand on any attempts at prosecutions by other states.

The State’s Attorneys for Baltimore City and Prince George’s County vowed their jurisdictions would be “safe spaces for abortion access.” Baltimore County said it will not extradite anyone in connection with another state’s abortion laws, as did Montgomery County.

Another effect of the overturning of Roe may be even greater demand for medication rather than surgical abortions, experts said. More than half of abortions are already done with the two-pill regimen, which can be used at home rather than in a clinic thus providing more privacy.

It’s an offshoot of the climate of fear that has come to surround reproductive rights, experts say.

“I know anecdotally patients are being a little more careful who they disclose their health care needs to, especially in states that have restricted abortion,” said Danya Qato, an associate professor at the University of Maryland Pharmacy School in Baltimore. “I’ve heard patients are being very tight lipped about their health care needs because they don’t know how it will be weaponized against them.”

Qato, who specializes in improving equity and access to health care, sees a growing role for pharmacists in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, particularly in a state like Maryland. Since 2019, pharmacists here have been allowed to prescribe contraceptives — which in most other states require a doctor’s prescription — after conducting a health screening.

While the Roe decision doesn’t directly affect birth control, some may erroneously believe an abortion ban in their state includes contraception, she said. And as many have noted, Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring decision in the case overturning Roe said the court “should reconsider” other rulings that used the same rationale — that abortion was not protected by the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. Among the cases he named was Griswold v. Connecticut which in 1965 established a right to contraception.

“Maybe women will cross state lines to have conversation with a pharmacist here,” she said, “because they’re not comfortable having it in their state.”

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