N.J. Democrats in talks to protect abortion rights but can’t agree on what that should mean

By Susan K. Livio

Originally published to NJ.com on January 4, 2022


The top two Democratic leaders in the state Senate say they are optimistic they will reach a compromise on a bill that would protect and expand abortion rights in New Jersey should the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court overturn the landmark Roe V. Wade decision.


What that compromise will look like is still a matter of ongoing private negotiations.


But two things are certain.


The bill will replace the Reproductive Freedom Act, legislation that has proven to be too controversial for many lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled state Legislature — even those who are regarded as reliably “pro-choice.”


And advocacy groups pushing for the legislation say they are prepared for the compromise to fall short of their goal of making abortion affordable and accessible to any woman or girl in New Jersey.


The current measure (S3030) would do more than enshrine a woman’s right to an abortion in New Jersey in the event the nation’s highest court returns a decision in June that upholds a Mississippi ban after 15 weeks and overturns Roe. The bill would require insurance plans cover the procedure without deductibles and co-pays, and regardless of a women’s immigration status. For financial and political reasons, these provisions have made some moderate Democrats uneasy.


On Monday, outgoing state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, told NJ Advance Media he was “hopeful” a deal could be reached before the two-year legislative session ends Tuesday at noon.


“We’ve got to get an agreement,” Sweeney said. “We’re trying to get that done. Neither house could pass the original bill.”


Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, the bill’s prime sponsor who is retiring after nearly 30 years in the Legislature, declined to discuss how the legislation might change. But they are making progress, she said.


“I have been the lone optimist is the room, but now I feel a few more have joined me,” Weinberg said.


Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, championed the act even before it was formally introduced on Oct. 8, 2020. Last fall, he campaigned on a promise to sign it into law.


But even Murphy is prepared to accept an incremental victory, according to a source close to the negotiations who was not authorized to speak publicly. The source said there is a “50-50″ chance of getting a bill introduced and approved by a committee Thursday for a vote in both houses of the Legislature on Monday. The current two-year legislative session ends next Tuesday at noon.


“If we don’t get it this session, it’s fine. We would rather wait to get it right,” the source said.


There is support to codify existing state Supreme Court law protecting a right to an abortion, and varying degrees of support for an insurance mandate, the source said. It’s likely that covering undocumented women would not be included in the new version, the source said.


Advocacy groups such as the ACLU-NJ and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey and others don’t want to settle for excluding anybody from getting access to an affordable abortion, said Sarah Fajardo, the ACLU’s policy director.


“The ACLU wants to see insurance coverage mandated and we want to see insurance be affordable for people who need to access it,” Farjado said. “We should not be leaving behind low-income women, communities of color and the undocumented.”


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, Fajardo said.


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.


State Medicaid funds pay for abortions for low-income women and girls, but people who came to this country illegally are not covered. The current bill for Reproductive Freedom Act would change this. There are about 252,000 uninsured undocumented residents of New Jersey, according to the Migration Policy Council.


Another source close to the negotiations who was not authorized to reveal private negotiations said lawmakers are concerned about the cost, but it is not the only issue. The source said it comes down to “How much do we want to make it easier to have an abortion?”


Fajardo said New Jersey should set a national example on how to protect and expand abortion access at a time when those rights are jeopardized by a conservative Supreme Court. “New Jersey has a chance to lead the nation by not leaving anyone behind,” she said.


Fajardo hopes a solution will emerge by Thursday, but she and her colleagues are not counting on it.


“No matter what happens this week, the work will continue,” she said.


Murphy recently acted administratively to implement another controversial provision of the bill that would have allowed more medical professionals to perform early aspiration abortions. The state Board of Medical Examiners last month approved regulations that give this authority to advanced practice nurses, physician assistants, certified nurse midwives and certified midwives.

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