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Abortion rights bill clears Legislature

By Nikita Biryukov

Originally published to New Jersey Monitor on January 10, 2022

Lawmakers in both chambers approved a bill codifying New Jersey’s abortion protections and sent the measure to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk, where it is expected to be signed.

The Senate approved the measure (S49) by a 23-15 vote. One Democrat, Sen. Fred Madden (D-Gloucester) voted no. In the Assembly the vote was 46-22, with eight abstentions.

“This legislation sends the message that our state values and defends an individual’s right to choose and prioritizes their well-being,” said Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex), its prime sponsor.

After a lengthy discussion about the bill in the Assembly, Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-Hudson) expressed frustration that the debate was focused largely on her male colleagues.

“To the men, you are not a woman, and until you have a vagina, you have nothing to say,” McKnight said.

The bill also permits the Department of Banking and Insurance to require insurance providers cover abortion services after it conducts a study, though the measure allows certain religious nonprofits to opt out of the requirement.

The bill, dubbed the Freedom of Reproductive Choice Act, is a pared-down version of the Reproductive Freedom Act, a more expansive abortion rights bill championed for months by Gov. Phil Murphy and advocacy groups liked Planned Parenthood New Jersey.

The broader measure would also have mandated insurers cover contraceptives and expanded the number of health care professionals who can conduct terminate pregnancies. It would also have required insurance companies cover abortion procedures, without an in-house study.

Murphy through executive action in December allowed advanced practice nurses, physician assistants, certified nurse midwives, and certified midwives to perform the procedure.

Lawmakers on Monday sent a separate bill mandating insurance coverage for contraceptives to Murphy’s desk. That measure would require insurers cover birth control prescriptions for up to 12 months at a time. Its passage was less controversial. It cleared the Senate 30-9 and the Assembly approved it 68-9 with two abstentions. Murphy is also expected to sign it.

Several Senate Republicans spoke against the abortion bill, some railing against abortion broadly and others questioning the bill’s swift passage through the Legislature.

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee approved the measure Thursday evening, advancing amendments added after hours of frenzied negotiation with the governor and members of the Democratic legislative caucuses. The amendments were not seen by the public before the vote.

“It’s just not acceptable to treat the public like that. It’s actually a total disrespect for the process,” said Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren), who opposed the bill. “Committee hearings are supposed to be so we hear from the public, and here it looks like there was a purposeful attempt to cut the public out.”

Democratic lawmakers said the bill passed Monday closely resembles versions that have been public for months.

“I disagree with some of my colleagues on the surprises because the original bill, which we all saw for months, had a lot more in it,” said Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth)

Despite broad support for abortion rights in New Jersey, some Democratic lawmakers have for months sought to stave off a vote on the Reproductive Freedom Act, fearing backlash from anti-abortion constituents.

That attitude ebbed somewhat as the U.S. Supreme Court took on cases that abortion advocates fear could overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that legalized the procedure nationwide. The court is expected to rule on those cases in June.

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