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New Jersey abortion access bill remains in limbo

By Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Originally published to New Jersey Monitor on August 25, 2021

A bill to expand abortion access in New Jersey, once hailed by Democrats as proof of their commitment to reproductive freedom amid a threat to abortion rights nationwide, remains stalled and faces an uncertain future.

The Reproductive Freedom Act, S3030, would codify and expand abortion access and pregnancy-related care, while funding state programs for pregnant people and requiring insurers to cover birth control. It was introduced by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) in October 2020 and hasn’t moved in either chamber since.

Abortion rights advocates are irked the bill remains in limbo nearly a year later, but say they’re confident that pouring time and energy into it is the right move during an election year where the entire Legislature is on the ballot.

“I don’t think we overdid it. I don’t think we wasted money, and I don’t think we wasted time,” said Sheila Reynertson of the New Jersey Policy Perspective. “We knew it was going to take a strategic building of support for a state Legislature that hasn’t had to grapple with this issue in a long time.”

The measure was the third most lobbied bill in the state in the 2020-2021 legislative session, according to the Election Law Enforcement Commission, beat out only by the two budget bills passed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Of the 10 groups that lobbied for the bill, the majority did so in support, including New Jersey Planned Parenthood, NJ Policy Perspective, the National Institute for Reproductive Health, and state and national chapters of ACLU.

The bill was the focus of 223 lobbying contacts, defined as communication with senior officials and lawmakers with the intent of influencing legislation. The nine-month budget approved in September had 483 contacts, while the spending bill approved in July reported 273 contacts.

Advocates argue abortion rights are threatened by recently appointed conservative Supreme Court justices Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh, and have urged the state to go further in its protections for a woman’s right to choose.

The pro-choice organizations met with lawmakers after Kavanuagh’s confirmation to the highest court in September 2018. Without a clear progressive caucus in the state Legislature, Reynertson said pro-choice groups knew “the only way to make this happen is with outside pressure.”

The challenge, she said, has been getting lawmakers to embrace proactive laws, because “historically, they’ve only had to push back on restrictive legislation that’s chronically re-introduced.” And in New Jersey, a liberal state with zero of the most common restrictions to abortion access, elected officials haven’t had to consider a bill regarding abortion access in years.

The proposed law saw a renewed push in May after the U.S. Supreme Court took a case over a Mississippi an on abortions after 15 weeks, which could become a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that legalized a woman’s right to an abortion. A decision is not expected until 2022.

On the opposing end stand groups like Catholic Heart Workcamp and the New Jersey Catholic Conference.

“We’re in the middle of the pandemic that still hasn’t unfortunately subsided. For them to try to push a bill like this at a time like this shows it’s really politically and financially motivated,” said Marie Tasy, executive director of NJ Right to Life, another organization opposing the bill.

Proponents argue that the dedication to pushing the bill forward should pressure lawmakers to move ahead with the measure, noting expanded abortion access is supported by over two-thirds of New Jerseyans.

“The real question is, why do so many advocates still have to urge the legislative leadership to hear and pass this bill?” said Kaitlyn Wojtowicz, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of New Jersey, the biggest lobbyist of the bill.

She said while legislative leadership hasn’t given clear objections to the Reproductive Freedom Act, they’ve essentially blocked it for more than 300 days by not advancing it to committee or scheduling a vote on it.

A spokeswoman for Speaker Craig Coughlin’s office said the bill “remains under consideration and the lame duck agenda yet to be determined.” Gov. Phil Murphy announced his support for the bill following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which spurred the introduction of the measure.

“We do trust that the Legislature will honor the will of their constituents, and they will pass the Reproductive Freedom Act during the lame duck session,” Wojtowicz said. “We hope they have heard from their constituents loud and clear that New Jersey can’t take a ‘wait and see’ approach when it comes to our reproductive healthcare.”

Reynertson noted lawmakers could have voted on the bill after it was introduced last fall, but delayed its passage.

“We were ready to roll, but support-in-name-only can only get you so far. We need to see members of the Legislature who are sponsors of the bill to actively stand up and say, ‘It’s time to move on this,'” she said.

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