By Nina Henry
Originally published to Rewire News on August 17, 2021
Every day that New Jersey’s Reproductive Freedom Act remains stalled in legislative committee is another day that patients in the state are scrambling to put funds together and make travel plans to access abortion.
That’s the scene set by Sheila Reynertson, senior policy analyst with the nonpartisan think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective.
New Jersey Policy Perspective is part of Thrive New Jersey, a coalition of 44 advocacy groups, health-care providers, and religious leaders organizing to pass the Reproductive Freedom Act. Introduced in October, the RFA would “explicitly guarantee, to every individual, the fundamental right to reproductive autonomy, which includes the right to contraception, the right to abortion, and the right to carry a pregnancy to term.” It would also ensure that no legislation or regulation could be passed to limit that right to New Jerseyans.
That means if the U.S. Supreme Court were to upend legalized abortion as we know it in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Reproductive Freedom Act would continue to protect access in New Jersey. (The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case in the fall, with a ruling expected around next June.)
“This is needed; this is urgent; this is not a matter where we want to wait for the Supreme Court to act,” said Anjali Mehrotra, president of NOW-NJ, a member organization of Thrive New Jersey. “We don’t want to be reactive—we want to be proactive.”
The RFA would:
require insurance plans in New Jersey to cover abortion and at least 12 months of contraception
allow a wider range of medical practitioners to provide abortion
modernize outdated language in state laws that could be used to criminalize pregnancy loss
update the language of state laws to be inclusive of trans and nonbinary people
The legislation is intended to go beyond the status quo of Roe v. Wade, Reynertson said.
“From day one, we didn’t want this to be a ‘codify’ bill—we wanted it to expand people’s rights,” she said. “We were very frank that no, actually, Roe hasn’t protected all communities.”
A logistical hassle
You might not think of New Jersey as a state where folks would need to travel hours to access abortion, but that’s the reality for many patients, according to Roxanne Sutocky, patient coordinator at the Cherry Hill Women’s Center.
The RFA would enable health-care professionals like nurse practitioners and midwives to provide abortion, which providers say would be a game-changer for patients in underserved parts of the state. About a third of New Jersey counties lack an abortion provider, and for some people, traveling out of state might be the closer option.
“People in the southern part of the state may have to travel to Delaware and Pennsylvania for the nearest abortion providers,” said Casey Olesko of Planned Parenthood of Northern, Central, and Southern New Jersey.
The RFA would also reduce barriers to later abortion by cutting through regulatory red tape that prevents qualified abortion providers from offering later abortions. New Jerseyans must fly to other states to access abortion later in pregnancy because it is not available in the state, Jada Grisson of the New Jersey Abortion Access Fund said.
But those logistics don’t come together easily, particularly for a working parent. And considering that around 59 percent of abortion patients are already parents, patients often need to take time off work, find child care, and come up with the money needed for both the travel and the procedure itself, leaving access out of reach for many.
Thrive New Jersey members also want to provide a safe haven of abortion access for people traveling from more restrictive states. The New Jersey Abortion Access Fund reported a spike in requests for funding from other states, which they attribute to the pandemic and new abortion restrictions, particularly during a year as volatile as 2021 for abortion rights. States passing a record-number of abortion restrictions has ripple effects across the country.
“Things in Texas affect people in New Jersey, and things in New Jersey affect people in Texas. Our freedom is a national issue,” said Rabbi Philip Bazeley, one of 55 faith leaders to sign an open letter in support of the RFA. “We also see it as a racial justice issue—many of these laws are going to affect minority ethnicities at a greater rate than others.”
Thrive coalition members say the RFA was drafted with the intent of centering the concerns of marginalized communities. In New Jersey, state funding for undocumented people’s health care covers birth control and prenatal care but not abortion. The RFA would change that. The legislation also uses gender-neutral language to describe pregnancy, and has received endorsements from LGBTQ rights groups Garden State Equality and HiTOPS.
The coalition has faced challenges as various organizations came together under one umbrella. Mehrotra, the president of NOW-NJ, said Thrive New Jersey has had to address concerns about its mostly white leadership.
“I felt that I had a seat at the table, but not in the decision-making,” Mehrotra, who is South Asian, said. “I spoke up, and it was not the easiest thing to do, but I’m really glad I did because it was taken really well. We ended up really changing the entire structure of the coalition—the response was tremendous.”
Mehrotra said studying coalition work in other states, with the help of national partners, helped Thrive grow into a more inclusive coalition.
At a standstill
“We are at a stalemate here,” Reynertson said. “The legislative leadership also thinks there’s no [access] emergency in New Jersey.” She added that the Democratic-controlled legislature needs to create more pressure to advance the legislation.
Mehrotra remains optimistic that the bill will pass after New Jersey’s off-year elections in November, but she’s hoping lawmakers act before the Supreme Court rules on Jackson Women’s Health.
“I think people outside of the state make a lot of assumptions—they look at blue states and think, ‘At least you don’t have heartbeat bills,’” Grisson said. “My biggest hope is to see that financial barrier removed because abortion has been legal only in theory for too long.”