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How One State Has Become a Model for Protecting Abortion Rights From Supreme Court Conservatives (Updated)

Auditi Guha

Vermont's Republican governor told Rewire.News he would not stand in the way of protecting abortion rights amid the looming threat to Roe v. Wade.

UPDATE, June 11, 1:01 p.m.: Gov. Phil Scott (R) on Monday signed H.57.

As Republican-controlled state legislatures across the United States pass near-total abortion bans, Vermont Democrats are looking to establish the country’s most comprehensive abortion rights protections.

The pro-choice effort in Vermont is two-pronged: a constitutional amendment via Proposition 5 to guarantee personal reproductive liberty, and bill H 57, which codifies the right to an abortion and prohibits public entities from interfering with a person’s right to choose.

Vermont’s Democratic-majority house and senate have passed both measures this session, and H 57 will soon head to the governor’s desk, where he can either sign it, allow it to become law by taking no action, or veto it. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) does not plan to veto H 57, his spokesperson told Rewire.News.

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Proposition 5 is a more longterm endeavor: It requires another pair of votes in the legislature during the next biennial session before it can appear on the ballot as a public referendum in November 2022. If passed by voters, it would protect access to reproductive health care in the event that Roe v. Wade and any state abortion laws are overturned.

“For those values and those rights to be protected definitively, they must be enshrined in our state constitution. The time is now,” Rep. Ann Pugh (D-South Burlington) said on the house floor when reporting Proposition 5. “While the right to reproductive autonomy and particularly abortion care remains for the time being a fundamental right at the national level, it has been and is under serious attack. In this turbulent time, clarity is called for.”

H 57 would give Vermonters unrestricted access to abortion care even if conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court strike down Roe v. Wade. It would be one of the most comprehensive abortion rights laws in the country.

The bill recognizes “the fundamental right of every individual to choose or refuse contraception or sterilization,” and “the fundamental right of every individual who becomes pregnant to choose to carry a pregnancy to term, to give birth to a child, or to have an abortion.” The legislation aims to “safeguard the existing rights to access reproductive health services in Vermont by ensuring those rights are not denied, restricted, or infringed by a governmental entity.”

Scott dodged questions in 2016 about whether he’d support abortion restrictions, but last week he said he believes government should stay out of the decision. While confirming he would not veto the bill, Scott acknowledged the messages he’s received from abortion rights opponents who feel the bill goes too far, NBC Channel 5 reported.

There are 147,165 women of reproductive age in Vermont, according to 2017 Census estimates. In 2014, around 1,400 abortions were provided in Vermont; the state’s abortion rate increased by three percent between 2011 and 2014, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Many in the liberal Northeast state, like Elizabeth Deutsch, 49, hope Scott will sign the bill.

“Women’s health is health care,” said Deutsch, a nurse. “This is not about a philosophical decision, this is not a religious decision. This is a health-care choice and women should not have government interference in their health care. It is not up to anybody else or their religious belief to litigate what women can do with their bodies.”

No one is trying to regulate Viagra, vasectomies, or prostate when it comes to men’s health, Deutsch said. Unlike men complaining about the cost of pregnancy and abortion care when discussing universal health care, “we don’t hear women jumping up and down saying we don’t want to cover men’s prostate exams or their prostate cancer,” she said. “This is dangerous.”

State Sen. Virginia “Ginny” Lyons (D-Chittenden) said she hopes Scott will sign the abortion rights legislation into law.

“It is critical to establish fundamental rights to contraception, sterilization, pregnancy to birth and to abortion. These rights are basics to the human condition—in particular for women who comprise 51 percent of the population,” Lyons said in an email. “Any change to Roe v. Wade could eliminate women’s rights in many ways. Having legislation in place that articulates the past nearly 50 years of practice will protect Vermont values.”

“Governor Scott has stated publicly, as well as in our 2018 candidate survey, that he supports a woman’s right to choose and that he will always firmly defend the rights of all women. We appreciate his support of reproductive rights and we expect he will sign H 57 into law,” Lucy Leriche, vice president of public policy at Planned Parenthood Vermont Action Fund, said in a statement.

Other states with Democratic legislative majorities have moved to safeguard abortion rights amid the looming threat to Roe. In New York, Democrats passed a law in January repealing criminal abortion statutes, permitting abortion after 24 weeks when the pregnant person’s health is at risk or when the fetus is not viable, and allowing nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants to provide abortions. It also amended an archaic law that would have endangered abortion rights if Roe were overturned. In New Mexico, a group of conservative Democrats joined Republicans in March to end an effort to repeal a pre-Roe abortion ban.

Vermont legislators have not passed any laws restricting access to abortion since Roe was decided in 1973, Lyon noted.

“The ignorance reflected in other states suggest a cultural bias against women—the aging men and women conspiring to eliminate reproductive liberty have no clue about what it means to be a woman—to be part of a diverse society of humans. H 57 will protect rights to abortion while the constitutional amendment [Proposition 5] is put in place,” Lyons said.

“H 57 would neither enhance nor restrict current access to abortion in Vermont. The goal of this law is to preserve the status-quo and prevent government interference between a patient and her healthcare practitioner and to allow healthcare practitioners to provide the highest quality, evidence-based, compassionate care that aligns with a patient’s goals,” according to the Vermont Medical Society.

The governor’s decision to let the law go into effect—or even sign it himself—could put Scott at odds with Republicans in states advancing a bevy of anti-choice legislation, including total and near-total abortion bans widely unpopular among the public.

Advocates gathered at the state house Tuesday evening to call for Scott’s support and to participate in a nationwide #stopthebans rally to condemn the legislative assaults on abortion access in Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, and other states where near-total abortion bans have been signed into law.

“With increased threats to abortion care at the national level, Vermonters want to protect people’s health and ensure that abortion care remains safe and legal here in Vermont,” ACLU of Vermont Policy Director Chloé White said in an email. “H 57 and the constitutional amendment are simply an affirmation of Vermonters’ long-held values.”

Deutsch, who has been a vocal supporter of the reforms in Vermont, described it as a civil rights issue.

“I am fighting this fight because I am a nurse, because I believe everyone has the right to their own health care choices, and because I believe that my daughter and my step-daughters are entitled to the best health care they can have,” she said. “It’s not up to anybody else to make decisions about their health care.”

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