N.J. lawmakers ready to protect abortion rights but back off plan to mandate insurance coverage
By Susan K. Livio
Originally published to NJ.com on January 5, 2022
Democrats who control the state Legislature are expected to cast the first votes Thursday to protect abortion rights in New Jersey, but they will not support additional measures backed by Gov. Phil Murphy and other progressives that would mandate insurance coverage for the procedure and include undocumented women.
Cecilia Williams, spokeswoman for state Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, confirmed late Wednesday a bill would be introduced that would “codify” the right to an abortion in New Jersey, as established under a 1982 state Supreme Court decision.
The measure is expected to be heard by the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Thursday morning. Assuming it is approved, the legislation will be sent to the full 80-member Assembly, which is meeting for the final voting session of the current legislative term on Monday.
The bill will take the same path in the state Senate, according to two legislative sources who declined to be identified because they say negotiations are still underway. The Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee is scheduled to meet at noon Thursday.
The legislation is a response to the months-long debate over how New Jersey should protect abortion rights if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the landmark Roe v. Wade decision later this year.
Conservatives hold a majority on the nation’s highest court, which is expected to render a decision in May or June that will decide whether to uphold a Mississippi ban on abortions after 15 weeks. If the court sides with Mississippi, it may overturn the 1973 Roe decision. Doing so would make abortion an issue decided by individual states.
State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, both D-Bergen, sponsored the Reproductive Freedom Act in New Jersey, shortly after then-President Donald Trump, a Republican, appointed Amy Coney Barrett to replace Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who died in September 2020.
The act (S3030) would have done more than enshrine a woman’s right to an abortion in New Jersey. It would have required private insurance plans cover the procedure without deductibles and co-pays, and for undocumented women to have their procedures paid for by the state. New Jersey already pays for abortions for low-income women on Medicaid, but the bill sought to expand this benefit to undocumented women.
For financial and political reasons, these provisions have made some socially conservative Democrats squirm. The bill did not get a hearing last year before the election, when all 120 members of the Legislature and the governor were on the ballot. But even after Murphy won and Democrats retained their majority hold on both houses, some members privately said they were not comfortable voting for the bill.
Negotiations between state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Murphy’s office, and the Assembly have been ongoing for weeks. Sweeney and Weinberg are serving their final days before the new session begins Tuesday afternoon.
Kaitlyn Wojtowicz, spokeswoman for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of NJ, expressed disappointment that lawmakers had strayed so far from the bill’s original intent.
“As the right to abortion care is under threat nationwide, we must take action here in New Jersey to protect our right to make our own personal health care decisions. But rights alone are not enough: without access to care, we cannot exercise our rights,” Wojtowicz said. “We are calling on the New Jersey legislature to go further to truly increase access by passing the full, original Reproductive Freedom Act – which not only codifies our right to abortion care, but also breaks down financial and logistical barriers that expand access for all New Jerseyans.”
On Tuesday, Sara Fajardo, the ACLU-NJ’s policy director, said advocacy groups were prepared to try again in the new session should negotiations fall short.
“The ACLU wants to see insurance coverage mandated and we want to see insurance be affordable for people who need to access it,” Fajardo said. “We should not be leaving behind low-income women, communities of color and the undocumented.”
A spokesman for Murphy’s office declined to comment.