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Abortion bill’s path remains uncertain as SCOTUS weighs Roe

By Nikita Biryukov

Originally published to New Jersey Monitor on December 2, 2021

Abortion rights activists this week renewed a push to advance a long-stalled bill that would codify New Jersey’s abortion protections and make a series of related reforms, but the bill’s path into law remains muddy amid U.S. Supreme Court cases that advocates fear could upend Roe v. Wade.

Supporters of the bill held an event Wednesday with Gov. Phil Murphy, plan to appear in Trenton Thursday when lawmakers meet for voting sessions, and intend to rally in Piscataway Saturday to drum up support for the bill.

“Some folks, even well-meaning folks who are on our side of this argument, have viewed this as an abstract, potential reality,” Murphy said at Wednesday’s virtual event. “The Supreme Court, President Trump’s appointees, the hearings today, the actions in both Mississippi and Texas — this is not abstract. This is in our lap. It is right before us.”

The Reproductive Freedom Act would codify abortion protections that exist in New Jersey case law while making a series of other reforms that include mandating insurance coverage for abortion and allowing non-physician health care practitioners to conduct the procedure, among other things.

The bill was introduced in October 2020 as lawmakers prepared for a U.S. Supreme Court with a 6-3 majority of conservative judges to re-examine Roe, the landmark 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Murphy campaigned for re-election by highlighting his support for the bill, but it has yet to be heard in committee and faces an uncertain fate that could see it pared down or pushed into the next legislative session.

“The bill is extreme and this is one of the reasons why the bill has not moved, because legislators have been made aware of how ridiculous and extreme this bill actually is,” said NJ Right to Life Executive Director Marie Tasy.

Some Democratic lawmakers have questioned the need for it. New Jersey’s abortion protections exist in case law and stem from a 1982 state Supreme Court decision that found abortion restrictions infringed on women’s right to bodily autonomy.

If the bill does move, it’ll likely be pared down first. Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Atlantic), another Assembly sponsor, in October told Politico New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney wants the bill’s effect limited to codifying abortion protections. A Sweeney spokesman declined to comment.

Much about the bill remains in flux, said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), its chief Senate booster.

“Well, things are still under discussion, which is the most I can say at the moment,” she said. “There’s always life left as long as we’re still talking about it.”

Weinberg, who has served in the Legislature for nearly 30 years, did not seek re-election this year and will retire at the start of the new session on Jan. 11. The Reproductive Freedom Act is viewed as a piece — perhaps the largest — of her legacy.

Weinberg said some of her colleagues would be content with a bill that just codified Roe v. Wade into New Jersey law.

“I think that there are some people who would be satisfied if we did nothing more,” she said. “But I would like to accentuate the phrase, not original to me, ‘a right is not a right if you can’t afford to access it.’”

Cecilia Williams, spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, indicated the Middlesex County Democrat has a greater appetite for advancing the Reproductive Freedom Act than Sweeney.

“A woman’s right to choose is under direct attack in Washington and elsewhere in the U.S. The Speaker believes we must protect access and ensure a woman’s right to choose,” Williams said. “He will work with his legislative colleagues to accomplish this critical protection.”

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday heard arguments in a case over a Mississippi law that restricts abortion after the 15th week of pregnancy. The standard imposed by Roe restricts bans on abortion restrictions before a fetus can be declared as viable, generally between 22 and 24 weeks into a pregnancy.

Abortion opponents have derided that standard as one left behind by scientific advances over the intervening decades.

“We have come so far. That is an outdated and antiquated decision,” Tasy said. “We need to follow the science, and if we follow the science, it is clear that the baby in the womb is a human being, is a person and is deserving of full legal protection.”

The high court isn’t expected to issue a decision in the Mississippi case for months.

The justices last month heard argument about a separate abortion law in Texas that bars the procedure just six weeks into a pregnancy and allows private citizens to sue physicians who conduct abortions even if they have no connection to the patient or clinic. That decision is also likely months away.

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