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Abortion rights in NJ, once unifying for Democrats, now may be a wedge issue in Trenton

By Dustin Racioppi

Originally published to on November 23, 2021

On the very short list of priorities Gov. Phil Murphy has detailed after winning reelection this month, protecting and expanding abortion access is at the top.

"This is essential," he said two weeks ago.

Where his fellow Democrats stand is not so clear.

And the uncertainty raises the prospect that the long-running national argument over a woman's right to choose will come to socially liberal New Jersey in the final weeks of the legislative session.

What's different from other states is that it's not the pitched partisan battle typically featured in abortion debates. Democrats control state government, but are at odds over the abortion rights legislation — particularly after bruising losses on Election Day.

Just last year, New Jersey Democrats overwhelmingly supported a bill, the Reproductive Freedom Act, enshrining the protections of the landmark reproductive rights case Roe v. Wade into law and expanding them.

But after an election season in which the party lost several seats and held on to others with tight victories, Democratic lawmakers enter the lame-duck session next month skittish about advancing a policy that might otherwise seem perfunctory in a state where more than half of adults support it, according to a Rutgers University poll this month.

When the Reproductive Freedom Act was introduced last October, it had 29 Democratic sponsors — more than half the party's caucus. Now no one will say whether it will advance to a committee for a hearing, let alone come up for votes that could send it to Murphy for his signature.

"We're still meeting and discussing it," Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the Democratic majority leader from Bergen County and a prime sponsor of the bill, said last week.

The office of Senate President Stephen Sweeney, whose surprising Election Day loss rocked the party, declined to comment.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin's office did not explicitly say the bill would be posted during the legislative session that ends in January, but key provisions of it will soon take effect under new rules approved by the Murphy administration.

Cecilia Williams, a spokeswoman for Coughlin, said: "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. He will work with his legislative colleagues to accomplish this critical protection."

Roe v. Wade 'under assault'

The debate in New Jersey has taken on new urgency amid the potentially imminent legal threats to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case protecting a woman's right to have an abortion.

Texas passed a law this year banning abortions after six weeks, stirring fears that it would virtually cut off all access to the procedure there. And the Supreme Court, with a conservative majority, has agreed to hear a challenge from Mississippi to Roe v. Wade, raising the potential for it to be overturned.

New Jersey case law protects a woman's right to an abortion, but lawmakers sought to enshrine it into law in case Roe v. Wade is overturned someday.

"Roe v. Wade is under assault. That's quite clear," Murphy said earlier this month. "And the reproductive freedoms in New Jersey can only go on if they are codified statutorily in a law that I would sign."

But it's not just reproductive freedom that has Democratic lawmakers second-guessing their support of the bill.

The Reproductive Freedom Act would go beyond Roe v. Wade by requiring health insurers to cover abortions and birth control at no cost out of pocket; easing regulations on late-term abortions, which are rare; and allowing professionals besides doctors, such as advanced practice nurses and midwives, to perform the procedure.

"The bill is very extreme," said Marie Tasy, executive director of the pro-life organization New Jersey Right to Life. "It goes beyond Roe v. Wade and what’s currently in law. It’s a draconian bill."

Advocates want a bigger safety net

Supporters said going beyond Roe v. Wade is the point. By requiring health insurance to cover abortions and contraceptives at no cost, that broadens access to those who couldn't otherwise afford it, they said.

"For far too many people it's just not accessible," said Alejandra Sorto, campaign strategist for the ACLU of New Jersey, which is part of a coalition fighting for sexual and reproductive health, rights and justice called Thrive New Jersey.

"So you can have a right on paper, and it’s important, but the barriers remain. And that is the reality in New Jersey," Sorto said.

She and other advocates pointed to The Turnaway Study done at the University of California, San Francisco, showing the negative effects on women who cannot have or are denied a "wanted" abortion. Some of the findings said those women were more likely not to have enough money to cover basic living expenses, and they were more likely to raise children alone.

"We’re talking about a safety net situation," said Sheila Reynertson, a policy analyst for New Jersey Policy Perspective, which is part of the Thrive coalition. "Simply, we want abortion to be affordable for those who are disproportionately hurt by these financial barriers."

What's next

Legislative leaders have not released plans for the lame-duck session that ends in mid-January, but advocates want to see the Reproductive Freedom Act in committee in early December.

Should that happen, it's possible lawmakers will be asked to vote on a scaled-back version of the bill because of new rules passed by the state Board of Medical Examiners.

Those rules, which should take effect soon, lift regulations on abortions that barred them from happening in a doctor's office beyond 14 weeks of pregnancy and would allow as many as 15,000 nurses, physician assistants and midwives to perform the procedure.

Because those provisions were included in the Reproductive Freedom Act, lawmakers could pull them and potentially the health insurance requirements, leaving simply a bill codifying a woman's right to an abortion.

That would not be acceptable to supporters, they said. The fact that the bill was one of the most-lobbied in the state this legislative session indicates the level of passion and money surrounding the issue.

"We’re going to keep pushing it," said Anjali Mehrotra, president of the National Organization for Women of New Jersey, which is also part of the Thrive coalition.

"Even if it doesn’t get done in lame duck we’re not giving up," she added. "This is not just about rights. This is about real equality."

Murphy did not say recently whether he would accept a watered-down version of the bill, but said "the more robust, the better on the Reproductive Freedom Act, and that includes insurance" covering abortions and contraceptives.

The governor said he's had "very good leadership meetings and exchanges" with lawmakers, but it's still "to be determined when and how this all works out."

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