Before a committee vote last week advanced a bill to let voters decide whether abortion rights belonged in the Maryland constitution, the chair removed her black medical mask for the first time and solemnly addressed her colleagues.
Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, a Prince George’s County Democrat, reminded members of the road this bill — the last of the day and one of the most controversial of the 2023 session — had traveled and what was at stake.
Last year, it passed the House but stalled in the Senate. If the legislature passed it this year, voters would get to decide on the right during the 2024 general election. The bill is expected to be before the full House of Delegates on Tuesday.
A week prior, members had heard personal testimonies of reproductive struggles requiring access to abortion and full-throated pleas for the committee to reject the controversial legislation that would further cement Maryland’s already existing abortion right.
“We have had a very rich discussion on the bill,” Peña-Melnyk said. “The bill is before you for a vote, again.”
Democrats outnumbered Republicans 3 to 1 on the committee. And the legislation was introduced by the Democratic Speaker of the House, Adrienne A. Jones.
But Peña-Melnyk invited her colleagues around the U-shaped dais to discuss and ask questions — of her, of each other and of the analysts in the room — before they voted on one of the most personal issues in American politics.
Those watching witnessed a civil, frank and composed discussion between ideological opposites — a seemingly unimaginable civic act in today’s tumultuous political climate.
“Any discussion on this bill?” Peña-Melnyk asked.
Republican Del. Nicholaus Kipke of Anne Arundel County said he opposed the bill. Abortion is already legal, he said. He was concerned with a potential uptick in late-term abortions and “reproductive tourism” flooding the state.
“Enshrining this in the state constitution is very offensive to a lot of pro-life Marylanders, including me,” Kipke said.
Peña-Melnyk reminded the committee that when Maryland’s abortion legislation was passed in the early 1990s, “the law of the land was Roe v. Wade.” But all that has changed, she told them, since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark decision guaranteeing the fundamental right.
Baltimore City Del. Sandy Rosenberg, an attorney, responded to Kipke.
“Late term abortions are permitted under the existing Maryland law only in a very limited set of circumstances,” Rosenberg said.
“And the so-called tourism is because people live in states where their fundamental rights have been severely restricted,” Rosenberg continued. “And they are coming here because in Maryland, we have taken steps, not only to ensure that the right exists, but there is access.”
Peña-Melnyk encouraged her colleagues to continue the discussion. Not one member raised a voice or criticized another’s opinion.
“I appreciate your thoughts,” she told the committee. “This is where we come and we talk, right?
“We have different upbringings, right? ... And we try to come up with a good policy that is balanced and fair,” she said.
Del. Robbyn Lewis spoke on behalf of men and women who choose to delay parenthood or not have children at all.
“As someone who chose actively not to become a parent, I think that my right to not be forced to bear children is one that’s worth defending,” the Baltimore City Democrat said. “This bill includes folks like me.”
Del. Brian Chisholm, a Republican, said he understood abortion may be necessary in dire circumstances, like when the life of the mother is at stake. But he urged the committee to consider his position.
“I think what is ultimately lost a lot of times in these conversations is the baby, a person, a product of God,” said Chisholm, who represents Anne Arundel County.
“We’re talking about two individuals, with one person making the ultimate decision,” he said.
Once there were no longer any comments from members, Peña-Melnyk called the roll.
The ayes, all Democrats, sent the bill to the House. She read the list of names of those opposed for the record — all Republicans. No one on either side had changed their minds.
“I respect everyone’s feelings, and this is a safe place to have [this debate],” Peña-Melnyk said.