By Susan K. Livio
Lawmakers on two state committees approved a hastily drafted bill late Thursday that protects abortions rights in New Jersey and authorizes Gov. Phil Murphy‘s administration to require state-regulated insurance carriers to cover the procedures’ costs.
The bill was approved by a 6-4 vote in the state Assembly Appropriations Committee and by 5-2 with one abstention in the state Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee. It now goes before the full 80-member Assembly and 40-member Senate on Monday, the last voting session of the two-year legislative cycle.
The bill 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.
But the votes that took place after 6 p.m. almost didn’t happen.
The committees were poised to vote on a narrow version of the bill would have only upheld a 1982 state Supreme Court decision recognizing abortion access as a right. But Murphy, a Democrat, signaled early Thursday that he would only sign the bill if it addressed insurance coverage for women who cannot afford the procedure’s cost, according to two legislative sources who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal negotiations.
An insurance mandate was included in the Reproductive Freedom Act, the legislation State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, both D-Bergen, introduced shortly after then-President Donald Trump, a Republican, appointed Amy Coney Barrett to replace Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in September 2020. The act also would have paid for the procedure for the first time for undocumented, low-income women through the state Medicaid program.
Socially conservative Democrats in both houses, including some Catholics, privately refused to support the Reproductive Freedom Act, saying they did not want to make it too easy to get an abortion. They also cited the anticipated cost to taxpayers, although a fiscal analysis of its impact was never circulated.
As one of her last acts at a state senator, Weinberg worked with outgoing Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, to introduce a new bill (S49) that directs the state Department of Banking and Insurance to study whether an insurance mandate is necessary. If the study reaches that conclusion, the department can adopt rules that requires state-regulated health plans cover the procedure.
“If the department adopts a regulation establishing this coverage requirement, the department will also be required to mandate that carriers grant, upon request of a religious employer, an exclusion under the contract for the required coverage if the coverage conflicts with the religious employer’s bona fide religious beliefs and practices,” according to the bill.
Less than half of the state is covered by a state-licensed health plan, which includes Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, and the health plan for state workers and teachers.
“There was a lot of give and take on this issue in the last week. But there was never a question that we were not going to protect all the rights that women have today to make their own reproductive choices,” Weinberg said after the vote. “I can’t think of any way I could better spend my last day as a senator than to be continuing the fight for women and their access to complete health care.”
Weinberg will resign Friday — four days earlier than her expected retirement from the state Senate — to join Horizon Blue Cross of New Jersey’s board of directors. Sweeney, who was defeated on election day and will leave the Senate on Tuesday, appointed her to the job.
The ACLU-NJ, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey and New Jersey Policy Perspective testified they were disappointed with how little the final bill resembled the original act.
New Jersey Policy Perspective’s Sheila Reynertson said the latest version “does absolutely nothing to make sure that everyone — regardless of income, ZIP code, insurance coverage, or immigration status — can make personal health care decisions with dignity.”
Republicans on the Assembly committee offered amendments that included barring women from other states from coming to New Jersey for abortions, and required minor to seek a parent’s consent before the procedure. Democrats who control the committee voted to table the amendments.
Marie Tasy from New Jersey Right to Life told the Assembly committee the “really radical bill” would make it easier to get an abortion in New Jersey, which has the highest abortion rate in America. “Why do we want to have more?”
Approximately 862,320 abortions occurred in the United States in 2017, including 48,110 abortions in New Jersey, according to the most recent data available from the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research and policy organization.
There is some suspense around what will happen at the voting sessions Monday. Some lawmakers who voted yes to release the bill from committee said they didn’t know if they could support it in the final vote.
“I am very torn with this topic,” Assemblywoman Gabriela Mosquera, D-Gloucester, said. “I believe in a woman’s right to choose. And I choose life. I am a Democrat, and I believe life starts at conception. But it is not about what I believe in.”
The conservative majority on the nation’s highest court will 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 v. Wade decision. Doing so would make abortion an issue decided by individual states.