By Susan K. Livio
Female lawmakers and pro-choice advocates in New Jersey have warned that abortion rights are under threat since the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg eight months ago and the appointment of conservative jurist Amy Coney Barrett to replace her.
On Monday, those concerns intensified after the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would review Mississippi’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The case strikes at the heart of Roe V. Wade, the landmark case that established a woman’s right to an abortion in 1973 and is the first abortion case for the nation’s highest court since former President Trump appointed three conservative justices.
Moments after the announcement, activists and a vocal group of Democratic lawmakers renewed their calls for the state Legislature to approve the Reproductive Freedom Act, introduced last year, that would enshrine the right to abortion and other reproductive health care for women under New Jersey law.
“It shouldn’t take for our rights to be at such great peril to take action,” said Roxanne Sutocky, director of Community Engagement for the Women’s Centers, which operates five abortion facilities in four states, including one in Cherry Hill. “The reality is we are standing on precipice of a really major setback.”
The bill (S3030) has stalled because the entire Legislature is on the ballot in November. Even in a reliably pro-abortion rights state, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, who control the fate of all bills, are reluctant to take on such a volatile issue during an election year, according to three legislative sources who are privy to the private discussions about the bill.
Gov. Phil Murphy, who is also seeking re-election, has championed the measure and promises to sign it. Through a spokesman, Sweeney declined a request Monday for comment on the bill. Coughlin’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
“We have spoken to the Assembly Speaker and staff of the Senate President, and we have not heard anything from them other than they are champions of women’s health care,” Kaitlyn Wojtowicz, public affairs vice president for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey. “Still this bill has not moved forward.”
The U.S. Supreme Court is not expected to render a decision until next year.
“There’s no reason New Jersey has to take a wait-and-see approach,” she said.
The bill does far more than just protect a woman’s right to seek an abortion, Sutocky said. It would require insurance policies cover contraception and abortion services, because many don’t or impose high deductibles, Wojtowicz said. The law would expand the availability of abortions by authorizing physician assistants and advance practice nurses to perform them, a change the governor has proposed through state regulation.
The bill would also expand the state fund that pays for prenatal care for undocumented immigrants to postpartum and abortion services, she said.
“We know there are external threats (to abortion rights) that exist,” Sutocky said. “This is really about excellent health care, dignity and respecting people. New Jersey should be doing better.”
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, one of the bill’s prime sponsors, agreed there is an added urgency to getting the bill passed sooner than later.
“I find it a little perplexing that a woman’s right to choose and making sure that right is in all our state laws, is still something people should be nervous about in the state of New Jersey. I thought that was settled a long time ago,” Weinberg said. “If there is an offer of any compromise, I as the prime sponsor in the Senate would certainly listen.”
“I don’t know why anyone would think it would be the undoing of anyone in an election year,” Weinberg added.
In 2017, the most recent year data was available, 48,110 abortions were provided in New Jersey and 862,320 were performed in the nation, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research center.
Marie Tasy, executive director for New Jersey Right to Life, said she was “encouraged” by the high court’s willingness to look at the Mississippi ban and Roe v. Wade, which she called “an outdated decision that was wrongly decided a half a century ago by nine men in robes at a time when we did not have the technology we do today.”
Since 1973, Tasy said, “62 million children have lost their lives ... and countless women have been deeply wounded by this tragic decision which continues to divide a nation.”
The proposed bill would add to that division, Tasy said. “It will restrain future legislatures from passing laws supported by the majority of New Jersey voters like bans on late-term abortions, parental notification and informed consent laws.”
In taking Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the nation’s highest court will decide whether any prohibitions on abortion are unconstitutional, in this case Mississippi’s 2018 ban after the 15th week of pregnancy. The Center for Reproductive Rights, a private law firm and the Mississippi Center for Justice on behalf of Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the only abortion clinic in the state, sued and prevailed at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2019. The state of Mississippi appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.
If the state wins, Roe v. Wade would likely be overturned. Abortion rights would become an issue decided by each state.
Nancy Northup, President & CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said overturning Roe would be “devastating” and swift. “Over 20 states would prohibit abortion outright. Eleven states—including Mississippi—currently have trigger bans on the books which would instantaneously ban abortion if Roe is overturned,” she said.