By Dustin Racioppi
Abortion rights will be protected by law in New Jersey under a bill approved Monday, but the legislation is far from the Roe v. Wade expansion that progressives and Gov. Phil Murphy wanted — and which Democratic lawmakers originally supported.
Instead, lawmakers sent a scaled-back version of what's come to be known as the Reproductive Freedom Act to Murphy, who said he will sign the bill this week.
"With Roe v. Wade under attack, the need for this bill is more urgent than ever," Murphy said in a tweet Monday after the bill passed.
Dubbed the Freedom of Reproductive Choice Act, the new measure, introduced last week, simply guarantees "the fundamental right of reproductive autonomy." It does not add a requirement that health insurers cover abortions and birth control at no cost out of pocket, as the original bill did.
It does, however, allow for the possibility of the state to require insurers to cover abortions if the Department of Banking and Insurance deems it necessary. But there's no language in the bill requiring the agency to conduct a study.
The bill also allows "all qualified health care professionals" to conduct abortions. That aligns with new state regulations letting professionals other than doctors, such as advanced practice nurses and midwives, to perform the procedure.
But advancing a measure that does not expand abortion access angered proponents of the Reproductive Freedom Act, which took on greater importance for them after Texas passed a law last year banning abortions after six weeks and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge from Mississippi to Roe v. Wade.
"At a time when reproductive freedom is on the line, we need to guarantee that abortion is not just legal, but accessible," said Sarah Fajardo, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
"To meaningfully protect the right to abortion and ensure equitable access, we must go beyond the status quo and guarantee that abortion is affordable for all New Jerseyans, regardless of insurance access, immigration status, or income," she said.
Democrats broadly supported the Reproductive Freedom Act last year, but that diminished after the November election, in which the party lost several seats and narrowly won others.
The division among Democrats on the abortion issue showed in the margins of approval for the new bill Monday: It passed the Assembly with 46 votes and the Senate with 23 votes.
There were 52 Democrats in the Assembly and 24 Democrats in the Senate on Monday.
Republicans either voted against the bill or abstained.
Sen. Holly Schepisi, R-Bergen, described herself as a "pro-choice Republican woman" but said she worried about unintended consequences and opposed the process. The new bill was introduced and voted of committee on Friday, then posted for a final vote on Monday. She abstained from voting.
"To forth this legislation in this fashion without enabling members of the public to be able to weigh in is public policy at its absolute worst," Schepisi said. And since case law establishes a woman's right to abortion, she added, the bill amounts "virtue signaling."
Sheila Reynertson, a policy analyst with the left-leaning think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, urged lawmakers last week to hold the bill and instead vote on the Reproductive Freedom Act in the next legislative session. The current two-year session ends Tuesday.
The newest bill, she said, "sends a message to those who struggle to make ends meet that legislative support of abortion rights is conditional, that New Jerseyans have the right to choose, but not too easily, not too often, not late in pregnancy and not if cost is an issue."