Maryland’s choice to back women’s reproductive rights — and medical science

The essential question raised by the Abortion Care Access Act, the controversial legislation enacted by the Maryland General Assembly last Saturday with House (90-46) and Senate (29-15) votes to override Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto, was this: Should abortions be performed by “qualified” health care providers who are not physicians? Opponents of the bill would have Marylanders believe that standard pregnancy termination could not safely be conducted by, for example, a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant who has been specially trained in this procedure. This would be news to the medical community. It was none other than the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists that found non-physicians can be trained to conduct this procedure. And when did the organization that represents 90% of the nation’s board-certified ob-gyns first make that determination?

That would be in 1994.

Yet there was Maryland’s Republican governor, who to his political advantage in a majority Democratic state has so artfully sidestepped the abortion issue during his two terms in office, attempting to use this tiny fig leaf of a medical scare to justify a veto that puts him most clearly and definitively in the actively anti-choice camp.

In an April 8 letter to House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, Mr. Hogan complains that House Bill 937 “endangers the health and lives of women” and that the “only” impact the bill would have would be to “set back standards for women’s health care.” This is blatantly untrue. Indeed, the better argument can be made that restricting access to abortion — a significant problem for low-income women in parts of Maryland but an especially worsening circumstance nationwide — is the far more dire threat to women’s health for any number of reasons.

If anything, Maryland’s broadening of abortion access was overdue. The legislation’s passage was largely fueled by the prospect of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling restricting abortion rights later this year — on top of the growing number of states that have rolled back women’s reproductive freedoms. In Texas, for example, a medical provider who conducts an abortion on a fetus older than six weeks (or even “aids” or “abets” one) faces a potential civil lawsuit from a member of the general public. Americans are certainly welcome to hold their own personal, often deeply-held religious beliefs about pregnancy and whether women should have control over their bodies. But they should not be able to impose those beliefs on others including victims of rape and incest.

Some Republicans in the state legislature fumed that this was “radical” and that Maryland might soon become a “destination” for women seeking to terminate pregnancy but unable to do so in their home state. This, opponents claim, would be a sad day for the state. They are correct in at least one respect. It is, indeed, sad that women must travel long distances to receive medical care made unavailable to them by religious zealots in their local jurisdictions. And if Maryland, one of the top health care destinations in the United States with world class medical facilities, becomes known as a place where women, including the disadvantaged, can find help they are denied elsewhere? It’s never radical to provide necessary health care to people who need it. Maryland should not shirk from its obligation to do the right thing.

We recognize, of course, that abortion has long been a politically polarizing issue. But nationwide, the numbers speak for themselves. Polls consistently show that a majority of Americans support a woman’s right to choose in most or all circumstances. We also recognize that most Americans believe that, in the words of Bill and Hillary Clinton, “abortion should be safe, legal and rare.” Opponents would be far better off investing themselves in pregnancy prevention which is the best way to reduce the number of abortions performed in this country.

Meanwhile, voters in Maryland should not allow Republican candidates, particularly those seeking statewide office, to use the patently bogus medical safety argument to oppose improving access to abortion. To use another Clintonism, “that dog won’t hunt.”

While reproductive rights can be a complex and nuanced issue, the claim that a nurse practitioner can’t possibly be trained to safely perform an abortion — as even doctors have long accepted as a perfectly reasonable assignment — is a blatant smoke screen for those who oppose a woman’s right to choose but don’t like to admit it, at least not to voters.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.