Vermont to make abortion a ‘fundamental right’

May 13, 2019 GMT

On its way to Vermont Gov. Phil Scott’s desk is an abortion rights bill that makes late-term legislation in New York and Virginia look conservative by comparison.

The Democrat-controlled state legislature gave final approval Friday to H. 57, which would create a “fundamental right” to abortion and prohibit government entities from interfering with or restricting access to abortion, ensuring that any pregnancy may be terminated for any reason at any time.

Democrats have said the legislation merely enshrines into law the no-limits status quo, but pro-life advocates say the result is the same.


“They can say they’re codifying current practice if they want to all day long, but we now have the most radical, pro-abortion legislation in the country,” said Vermont Right to Life Executive Director Mary Beerworth. “This will codify in statute unlimited, unregulated elective abortions.”

Three days earlier, the legislature passed Proposal 5, an amendment that would make Vermont the first state to enshrine the right to “personal reproductive liberty” in its constitution.

Proposal 5 would need to be approved again by the 2021-22 Vermont General Assembly and go before voters in November 2022 before it is added to the state constitution. H. 57 would take effect immediately upon the governor’s signature.

Planned Parenthood officials cheered the two-prong approach as a much-needed win for pro-choice advocates in a legislative year marked by a slew of pro-life victories and backlash from late-term abortion bills in New York and Virginia.

“Vermont has established itself as the shining example for all other states by acknowledging that every person is capable of and must be trusted to make their own health care decisions without government interference,” Meagan Gallagher, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said Friday in a statement.

The effort to protect no-limits abortion in Vermont’s legal code and its constitution goes beyond what any other state has enacted, including New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, cleared the path for abortion until birth by signing the Reproductive Health Act in January.

The New York law allows abortion without restrictions up to 24 weeks of gestation and until birth under certain conditions, including “absence of fetal viability” or “to protect the patient’s life or health,” which includes mental health. Vermont’s H. 57 and Proposal 5 have no such qualifiers.


“Vermont [legislators] wanted to go further than New York, and they have,” said Ms. Beerworth. “New York has a health exception, and it’s probably going to be abused, but Vermont has nothing. Nothing.”

Republicans in the Virginia legislature killed a similar late-term measure in January after the bill’s Democratic sponsor acknowledged that it would allow abortion until birth.

‘Above and beyond’

Meanwhile, the pro-life side has racked up historic victories. Three red states have passed fetal heartbeat bills, and at least two other states are expected to follow. The Alabama House last month passed an outright abortion ban, aimed at forcing the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.

Planned Parenthood suffered a painful defeat in March when eight Democratic state senators crossed party lines in New Mexico to defeat a bill that would expand abortion access championed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat.

In North Carolina, Democratic legislators helped defeat an infanticide bill last month and override the governor’s veto in the state Senate.

A similar legislative drama is playing out in Montana, where Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, vetoed a bill last week that would have required medical care for babies born alive after botched abortions.

Ambitious pro-choice bills are still on the move in Illinois, Nevada and Rhode Island but are no longer viewed as slam-dunks, even though Democrats control all three state legislatures.

In Rhode Island, the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled Tuesday to hold a critical vote to decide the fate of the Reproductive Privacy Act. Two Democratic committee members already have said they plan to vote against it.

“I am very uncomfortable with this current legislation,” state Sen. Leonidas Raptakis told the Providence Journal. “If it was identical word for word, dot for dot, period for period with ... what we currently have in Rhode Island, that would be satisfactory. But it is not. It has gone above and beyond.”

There was no such rank-breaking in Vermont, where the outcome of H. 57 was never in doubt. The House passed the measure by a vote of 106-37, followed by last week’s 24-6 Senate vote.

“When states can act to protect basic health care, they should, and Vermont is an example of the critical role state leaders can play in the work to preserve our patients’ rights and freedoms,” said Leana Wen, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Planned Parenthood also defended the legacy of the New York bill, which came under fire after Democrats broke out in shouts and applause during the signing ceremony.

“New York’s Reproductive Health Act, passed earlier this year, marked the beginning of a sea change in which nearly half of states introduced policies that protect and expand access to safe, legal abortion,” Planned Parenthood said Friday.

Vermont House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said the two measures would “go hand in hand to guarantee Vermonters’ access to reproductive liberty both in statute and in the constitution.”

“If, someday, reproductive freedoms for Vermonters are challenged or restricted, as we are seeing in many other states, our courts will have clear guidance on the fundamental importance of reproductive liberty for our state,” she said in Vermont Business Magazine.

Mr. Scott, a pro-choice Republican, has said he supports legislation to “codify Roe” but has not indicated whether he will sign a specific bill.

For pro-life advocates such as Ms. Beerworth, the fear is that Vermont will become even more of an abortion destination. In 2017, Planned Parenthood performed about 1,100 abortions in Vermont as the number of procedures continues to decline nationwide.

“It’s gone down, but it’s going to go back up because of this attention on abortion,” Ms. Beerworth said.