By Tennyson Donyéa
Wednesday — as people around the world tuned in for oral arguments in a case that could overturn precedents set by Roe v. Wade — New Jersey officials and advocacy groups made the case for a bill that would codify a person’s right to abortion in the state.
New Jersey’s Reproductive Freedom Act (RFA) was first introduced in the state Senate and General Assembly in October 2020, but it has since stalled in both chambers. There have been no committee hearings on the current version of the bill, and there are no signs that it will be passed in the coming days, though Gov. Phil Murphy recently expressed hope that he’d sign the bill before the end of the year.
Wednesday, he joined physicians and organizations that advocate for a woman’s right to choose, urging state lawmakers to pass the RFA promptly.
“I was under the impression that we had settled [Roe v. Wade] 40 years ago. I can’t believe that we are at this again,” Murphy said.
“The good news is — today women in New Jersey have reproductive freedom…The bad news is that it is entirely based on case law. All of that case law is in turn based on Roe v. Wade,” Murphy said. “If Roe v. Wade is diminished in any way, or worse yet, completely nullified, the entirety of that case law comes down like a house of cards immediately in New Jersey.”
The RFA, which is primarily sponsored by Senate and Assembly Democrats, would do more than protect abortion access in the Garden State.
It would also ease regulations on doctors and facilities where late-stage abortions could be provided; allow nonphysician medical professionals to perform abortions in certain cases; require insurance coverage with no out-of-pocket costs for abortion and contraceptives; and certify that a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus may not be understood to have independent rights under the laws of the state.
Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute For New Jersey Politics, said those provisions may scare off some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
“If you polled most of the members of the Democratic caucuses in the Senate and in the Assembly, my strong suspicion is that most of them would agree with the principle of putting Roe v. Wade on the books,” Rasmussen said. “However, the Reproductive Freedom Act goes pretty far beyond that, and maybe that’s okay with some of the members, but it’s not okay with others.”
If the bill were to be passed during the current session, legislators would need to discuss which additional provisions there is consensus on and hash out any prevailing differences, Rasmussen said.
Personal convictions and religious beliefs may also thwart the bill’s progress, he said. “It always has been a pretty Catholic state. And so it’s one that you don’t see a lot of abortion legislation getting across the desk, in the legislature…” Rasmussen said. “Even though it’s a very progressive state, and even though it’s a state where people certainly believe in the woman’s right to choose, there is a personal comfort level that I think, in many cases, has to be satisfied. And maybe that’s where some of the hang-up is taking place.”
Advocates for abortion access said overturning Roe v. Wade would disproportionately harm women of color and women with lower income.
“I firmly believe that your health care should not depend on your ZIP code,” said Dr. Kristyn Brandi, an Associate Professor at Rutgers University-New Jersey Medical School.
Brandi, an abortion provider, has conducted research on racism in reproductive health care. She spoke in support of the RFA at Gov. Murphy and Planned Parenthood’s virtual press conference on Wednesday.
“As a child of Puerto Rican parents, I knew that some people had it easier than others. I’ve known my whole life that systems like white supremacy and sexism limit people’s abilities to live their best lives,” Brandi said. “And now as a doctor, that still holds true. I know that not all communities have access to the care that they need. And that includes reproductive health care, like abortion, like contraception, like prenatal and postnatal care. I want my patients to have the same access to care, regardless of their background, regardless of life’s challenges.”
But anti-abortion groups like New Jersey Right To Life disagreed with the notion that enshrining abortion in statutory law would protect women of color, the organization’s executive director, Marie Tasy, said.
She pointed to prenatal maternity homes and similar programs, and called many of the provisions in the RFA “extreme.”
“We need to support minority women. We should not be telling them you know the only answer we have for you is to kill your baby,” Tasy said.
Rasmussen, the Rebovich Institute’s director, said there was no “question in his mind” that Democrats in both chambers can come to a consensus on some of the provisions in the RFA by January, before the end of the current session.
“That’s really what the lame duck session is for,” Rasmussen said. “It’s for very pragmatic, get down to brass tacks, and figure out what you can get passed and what you can’t get passed.”