WASHINGTON – Maryland ranks eighth in the nation for protecting abortion and reproductive rights, according to a report released Thursday by the National Abortion Reproductive Rights Action League Foundation.
The state’s grade of A-, compared to a national grade of D+, is due in part to its law against clinic violence and its high level of public funding for abortions, the report said.
“Maryland has always been the leader in pro-active, pro-choice legislation,” said Traci Siegel, executive director of the foundation’s Maryland affiliate.
But she fears that could change, after several moderate state senators were ousted last fall by strongly anti-abortion challengers.
“Maryland overall is very strongly pro- choice, but we took some hits in November and lost some key seats in the state Senate, no question about it,” said Siegel.
She said her group’s biggest battle will be against a proposed partial-birth abortion ban, which has failed narrowly in recent years.
Anti-abortion groups also predicted that the legislature has shifted in their direction.
“Maryland’s a pretty tough state for passing pro-life legislation, but with the election we’re hoping the tide is beginning to turn,” said David Lam, executive director of Maryland Right to Life.
Lam said Maryland has “a pretty dismal standing when it comes to abortion, especially compared to surrounding states.”
There were 2,570 publicly funded abortions in Maryland in 1997, he said, compared to 100 in Virginia and 54 in Pennsylvania. Lam also noted that 98 percent of Maryland’s state-funded abortions were done for mental health reasons.
Medicaid paid about $2.4 million for abortions in 1998 in Maryland, according to the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Siegel said that Maryland has consistently been a leader in public funding for abortions.
She also noted that Maryland was the first state in the nation to pass a law protecting access to abortion clinic entrances and prohibiting clinic violence back in 1989. That helped boost its ranking in Thursday’s report.
But the state’s score suffered slightly because of Maryland’s “conscience clause,” which lets physicians and hospitals refuse to perform abortions or refer patients for the procedure.
“I’m actually kind of amused by NARAL’s reaction to the conscience clause,” said Patricia Kelly, associate director of the Maryland State Catholic Conference. “For a group such as NARAL, who consistently accuses pro-life groups of trying to impose their views and beliefs on the nation, to oppose a conscience clause seems very inconsistent.
“Every state, every individual should be able to exercise conscience, especially when it comes to the abortion of an unborn child,” she said.
Kelly said the report “indicates just how drastically out of step Maryland is compared to the rest of the nation, but I’m heartened to see the results from the rest of the country.”
Eighteen states got F’s and another seven got D’s from the foundation.
While alarmed by the national picture, abortion rights groups said they were heartened by a new Maryland law that requires insurers that cover prescription drugs to also cover contraceptive drugs and devices. The law took effect Oct. 1.
“We expect that it will greatly reduce the number of unintended pregnancies statewide and thus reduce the number of abortions,” said Dr. Russell Moy, director of Maternal Health and Family Planning at the state health department.
But Kelly called the new law “appalling” because, while it offers an exemption for religious organizations, there is no conscience clause in it for other private insurers and employers.