By Susan K. Livio
Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday signed a bill into law that preserves the legal right for women and girls to obtain an abortion in New Jersey, a protection many say is necessary because the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court may overturn the 49-year-old Roe v. Wade decision later this year.
The new law (S49) also authorizes the state Department of Banking and Insurance to study whether the cost of an abortion is an impediment to low-income and uninsured women getting one.
If the study finds this to be true — as organizations like the ACLU-NJ have argued — the department may enact rules that would require state-regulated plans, like Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey and the programs that cover public teachers and state employees, to pick up all costs.
“The Supreme Court is preparing to take a wrecking ball to Roe v. Wade, and that would also demolish our case law in New Jersey,” Murphy said before signing the bill during an outdoor ceremony in Teaneck. “Neither I or those with us today can allow that to happen.”
The Democratic governor added the bill will also help make sure the cost of reproductive care is not “a barrier.”
In addition, Murphy signed a separate law (S413) requiring medical professionals in New Jersey who prescribe contraceptives to write prescriptions for 12 months at a time, and for state-regulated insurers to cover the cost.
“Together, these pieces of legislative will protect access to time-sensitive care,” Murphy said.
The abortion rights bill Murphy signed is less ambitious than the Reproductive Freedom Act, the legislation former state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, both Bergen County Democrats, introduced after President Donald Trump, a Republican, appointed Amy Coney Barrett to replace U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in September 2020.
With the majority of the members of the nation’s highest court politically conservative, many believe when the court decides this year whether to uphold a Mississippi abortion ban after 15 weeks that it is likely to overturn Roe, the 1973 decision that recognized a woman’s right to privacy to have an abortion.
If Roe falls, individual states will decide whether to make abortion legal or not, or whether to impose restrictions.
Murphy campaigned for reelection last year vowing to protect and expand abortion rights. The Reproductive Freedom Act would have required the state Medicaid program to pay for the procedure for women who entered the country illegally and imposed an insurance mandate for covering the procedure.
But socially conservative Democratic men in both houses of the state Legislature privately refused to support the bill, saying they did not want to make it “too easy” to get an abortion. They cited the anticipated cost to taxpayers, although a fiscal analysis of the bill’s impact was never circulated. Democrats hold majorities in both the Senate and the Assembly.
Murphy, a Catholic, addressed opponents of the new law, saying “we can each hold our personal, deeply felt views and still respect each individual’s ability to make their own decision.”
The bill passed 23-15 in the Senate and 48-22 with eight abstentions in the Assembly on Monday. Republicans in both houses pleaded with their Democratic colleagues to consider how abortion kills 48,000 babies in New Jersey every year. They asked to consider scientific opinions that suggest a fetus has the capacity to feel pain at 20 weeks.
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists says “A human fetus does not have the capacity to experience pain until after viability,” and that is 24 weeks, at least. “Rigorous scientific studies have found that the connections necessary to transmit signals from peripheral sensory nerves to the brain, as well as the brain structures necessary to process those signals, do not develop until at least 24 weeks of gestation.”
Republicans also criticized the Democrats’ last-minute maneuver to introduce a less ambitious bill just a week ago and passing it out of committee minutes after later.
Republicans’ arguments sparked fiery responses. To the men speaking out against a woman’s right to decide their own futures, Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, D-Hudson said moments before the vote: “Until you have a vagina, you have nothing to say.”
Murphy traveled to the Teaneck public library, in Weinberg’s home town, to sign the bill alongside Weinberg and Vainieri Huttle, both of whom just left office. Weinberg resigned last week and Vainieri Huttle lost a primary election for her seat against district-mate, now-state Sen. Gordon Johnson, D-Bergen. Weinberg received a standing ovation at the event.
Vainieri Huttle said more than 20 states are prepared to restrict access to reproductive care.
”The future of choice remains uncertain nationwide,” she said. “Today, the need for this bill signing is more urgent than ever. Everyone deserves the ability to make their own personal health choices. We also know it will protect the health and well being of the people of our state while showing the country and the world New Jersey stands for compassion and freedom.”
Dozens of supporters with pink Planned Parenthood signs, winter hats, and scarves. attended the outdoor bill-signing ceremony.
”Abortion is healthcare,” one sign read: ”Thank God for abortion,” another said.
A couple of anti-abortion protestors stood in the corner of the parking lot. ”Baby lives matter,” a sign read.
Marie Tasy, executive director for New Jersey Right to Life, said in a statement that the law “signed the death warrant for thousands of innocent children.”
“The heavy handed abuse of the legislative process and backroom deals that were employed to get this bill passed display arrogance, disrespect for the public, and will carry a shameful legacy for this governor and the politicians that sponsored and voted for this egregious bill,” Tasy said.
Progressive groups like the ACLU-New Jersey, Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey and New Jersey Policy Perspective at first criticized the scaled-back bill, saying it fell short of meeting the reproductive health needs for low-income women. First trimester abortions cost about $470, which is when 91% of abortions are performed, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. But the price rises exponentially — into the thousands of dollars — later in the pregnancy.
Even if women have insurance and abortion services are covered, the cost of co-pays, deductibles and other fees may make it too expensive, according to literature from Thrive New Jersey, a coalition of groups who support the legislation The reproductive policy think tank the Guttmacher Institute says 53% of women who have had abortions paid out of pocket.
These advocacy groups have vowed to push for a more ambitious bill in the latest legislative session, which began Tuesday and lasts two years.
On Thursday, Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said this was a “historic day” for New Jersey.
“By ensuring that reproductive health decisions — about birth control, abortion, and pregnancy — are protected in state law, New Jersey has taken an important step forward for reproductive freedom,” McGill Johnson said
The foundation of the new law is built on 1982 state Supreme Court decision, Right to Choose v. Byrne. Pro-abortion rights advocates regard the decision as even far more protective of a woman’s right to choose than Roe.
The case arose from a challenge to a law that prohibited the state Medicaid program from paying for an abortion unless the pregnancy threatened the mother’s life. The state’s highest court struck down the law, calling “the right to choose whether to have an abortion...a fundamental right of all pregnant women, including those entitled to Medicaid reimbursement for necessary medical treatment.”
“By granting funds when life is at risk, but withholding them when health is endangered, the statute denies equal protection to those women entitled to necessary medical services under Medicaid,” Justice Stewart Pollack wrote at the time. “Thus, the statute impinges upon the fundamental right of a woman to control her body and destiny. That right encompasses one of the most intimate decisions in human experience, the choice to terminate a pregnancy or bear a child. This intensely personal decision is one that should be made by a woman in consultation with trusted advisers, such as her doctor, but without undue government interference.”