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Mississippi case makes abortion topic in NJ legislature, election

By Michael Symons

Originally published to NJ 101.5 on May 23, 2021

TRENTON – Long-simmering legislation that would write the right to an abortion into New Jersey law and make related changes got an extra push last week, when the Supreme Court accepted a case from Mississippi that could pare back or overturn Roe v. Wade.

There’s no state law in New Jersey codifying abortion rights – just case law, which activists contend would be in jeopardy, depending how the Supreme Court rules, probably next year, on the law that prohibits abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy in Mississippi.

Gov. Phil Murphy said he strongly prefers a vote on the Reproductive Freedom Act before June 30, because that’s when the Legislature is likely to go on recess until after the election.

“Sooner is better than later. This is not abstract anymore,” Murphy said. “This is a real, present danger and threat to women in New Jersey and we must act. And we must act preemptively.”

Legislative leaders have been reluctant to post the bill for a vote, at least before the post-election, lame-duck period, likely out of concern they would motivate voters who are opposed to abortion rights. But Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, said the bill shouldn’t wait.

“This is the time to make that statement in New Jersey,” Weinberg said.

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Bergen, who is running in a competitive Democratic primary for the nomination to succeed Weinberg in the Senate, said alarm bells are sounding and “enough with the excuses” from legislative leadership.

“I think that the threat in Mississippi should give us momentum here in New Jersey. And if we can’t do it in New Jersey, that’s pretty alarming,” Vainieri Huttle said.

Planned Parenthood president Alexis McGill Johnson said the opposite is also the case – that if New Jersey enacts its law, it would “export imagination to organizers across the country” in states where lawmakers are enacting new abortion restrictions.

“What will happen when, if Roe is gutted or overturned, 25 million women will be living in states that do not have access to an abortion provider,” said McGill Johnson, who is from Morristown. “So, they will be traveling to states like New York, like California, like New Jersey that represent freedom.”

The topic is likely to be an election-year issue. Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli called the bill radical because of how it expands abortion access and Murphy an extremist. His fellow GOP candidates Hirsh Singh and Philip Rizzo oppose abortion rights, while Brian Levine is pro-choice.

“Phil Murphy’s eagerness to sign legislation that would permit abortions up to the time of birth shows how extreme and out of touch he is with the values of the vast majority of New Jerseyans in both parties,” Ciattarelli said.

Rahbbea Norton-Lee, associate medical director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey, said the RFA is urgent given the Mississippi case but also because it would expand insurance coverage of abortions and birth control and permit nurse practitioners to perform abortions.

“Not only must we continue to protect our rights here in New Jersey, we must also work to expand access,” Norton-Lee said.

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