WASHINGTON – Maryland is one of the best states in the nation when it comes to protecting abortion rights, and activists on both sides of the debate said Thursday that pro-choice groups likely have the votes to keep it that way.
The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League gave Maryland a grade of A- for abortion access in 1999, in a nationwide report card released Thursday.
It said Maryland was the ninth-best state in the nation for abortion rights — down slightly from the 1998 ranking of eighth best, but still well above the national grade of D+.
“We certainly applaud Maryland’s approach to reproductive rights,” said Elizabeth Arndorfer, a senior staff attorney for the abortion-rights group. She said Maryland has “led the way” for other states.
But abortion opponents see Maryland’s ranking is evidence of moral decay, not progress.
“Bringing [abortion] from the back alley to the front street didn’t really help at all. It’s still as dirty as it ever was,” said Barbara King. She is the director of the Auburne Center Project, an abortion hotline and counseling service run by Pregnancy Center Inc.
But King agreed with pro-choice groups that, unless the political situation changes dramatically in Maryland, there is little chance of the state changing direction on abortion.
“Our biggest problem is the [upcoming] election,” she said. “If we could elect legislators that had stronger values, we’d probably have better laws.”
For the past five years, the General Assembly has defeated a bill that would prohibit so-called “partial-birth abortions” performed after 16 weeks of pregnancy.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Larry Haines, R-Carroll, is “better than nothing,” but is not good enough, King said.
NARAL officials called Haines’ bill the biggest threat to Maryland’s liberal abortion laws.
“It would make abortion illegal after the 16th week of pregnancy,” said Nancy C. Lineman, political director of the Maryland affiliate for NARAL.
Lineman said Haines’ bill would “chip away at a woman’s right to choose.” But she was confident that the state’s pro-choice lawmakers “have enough votes to overturn” virtually any pro-life legislation.
In 1998, Maryland was the first state to require that insurance coverage for prescriptions also cover FDA-approved prescription contraceptives, Arndorfer said. And, in 1989, Maryland was the first state to pass a law protecting access to abortion clinics and prohibiting clinic violence.
While Maryland requires that abortions be performed by licensed physicians, most of the other restrictions come with exceptions.
The state prohibits an abortion if fetus could live outside the mother’s womb, for example, but that determination is left up to the physician. Doctors are also allowed to perform abortions if they determine that the birth would put the mother’s physical or mental health at risk.
Maryland prohibits abortions for unwed minors in most cases, but the procedure can be performed if the physician determines that “the minor is mature and capable of giving informed consent to an abortion.”
Maryland limits state-funded abortions to women whose physical or mental health is at risk, or who are victims of rape or incest.
There are more than 150 abortion clinics in the state, but it is virtually impossible to track the number of procedures because Maryland does not require that clinics report them, said Clement Chan, data analyst supervisor at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. He said that only 15 clinics reported to the state in 1998, claiming 10,018 procedures in that year.