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NJ legislative Democrats look to push vote on abortion bill off until after election

By Stacey Barchenger

Originally published to Asbury Park Press on May 21, 2021

Women's health care advocates are ramping up pressure on New Jersey lawmakers to advance a bill expanding access to abortion in the state, saying the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last week to take up a challenge to Roe v. Wade adds urgency to put a law in place.

But leaders in the Legislature are in no hurry to move a bill, called the Reproductive Freedom Act, until after the November election, when all 120 seats in the Senate and Assembly are on the ballot, according to two legislative sources.

While it might seem like a slam-dunk in the liberal Garden State to enact guaranteed access to abortion, the Legislature has never passed a law legalizing it. Instead, New Jersey court decisions have said women can obtain abortions here.

Advocates say it is time to put a law on the books in case the nation's top court — now with three conservative Trump appointees and missing staunch abortion rights supporter Ruth Bader Ginsburg — overturns precedent set nearly 50 years ago in Roe v. Wade.

The Supreme Court last Monday said it would take up a case based on Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks in most circumstances, though a ruling wouldn't likely come until next year.

Opponents of the New Jersey bill to codify abortion rights in the state include Catholic Church leaders and other faith-based groups that have been lobbying lawmakers to vote against the measure.

Gov. Phil Murphy, who worked with lawmakers to introduce the Reproductive Freedom Act in October, is leading the chorus of those urging action.

"The time to pass the Reproductive Freedom Act is now," Murphy said during an online event with leaders of Planned Parenthood and women Democratic lawmakers on Thursday.

"I look forward to working with leadership and members of both chambers to ensure this bill gets a hearing and that it gets a vote as soon as we can — with a strong preference by June 30, before the Legislature goes on budget break," Murphy said.

What the law would do

The Reproductive Freedom Act would guarantee a person's right to choose when it comes to reproductive health care — whether that be contraception or abortion. It also expands on existing court precedent and regulation.

If signed into law, the bill would allow more medical professionals, including advanced practice nurses, physician assistants, certified midwives, certified nurse midwives and others, to perform abortions. Currently, only obstetrics and gynecology doctors can perform abortions, said Kaitlyn Wojtowicz, public affairs vice president for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey, a proponent of the bill.

It would also supplement a state fund that covers health care for uninsured residents, who are often undocumented workers, and would require all health insurance providers to cover the cost of abortion and contraception with no out-of-pocket costs.

The bill would allow for religious employers to seek exemptions from those requirements.

Advocates for the bill say it expands access to reproductive health care by allowing more abortion providers and removing barriers, including the cost of the procedure.

"It ensures that financial restrictions do not prevent anyone from making health care decisions, and it expands access to birth control and abortion by eliminating medically unnecessary restrictions," Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said during an appearance with Murphy. "New Jersey has an opportunity that many organizers across the country can only dream about: the chance to pass proactive legislation."

Opponents argue that taxpayers shouldn't bear the burden of paying for insurance to cover an abortion, and they say lawmakers should let the public decide state law on the issue.

The Reproductive Freedom Act is "taking away the freedom of New Jerseyans to have a say on one of the most important human rights issues of our day," said Marie Tasy, executive director of the group New Jersey Right to Life, which opposes abortion. “If Roe v. Wade is overturned, why not let the people of New Jersey decide this issue? The people of the state never had a say.”

Pressure on legislative leadership

While advocates worry that the U.S. Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade — the first case to establish a woman's right to an abortion — it's tricky to read tea leaves and predict how the court's decision will turn out.

Overturning precedent set in Roe v. Wade would leave it up to states to decide how to regulate abortion, according to Kimberly Mutcherson, a co-dean and professor of law at Rutgers Law School in Camden. The court could also issue a ruling that does not overturn precedent but does add new restrictions that would make it harder for women to get abortions, she said.

The most powerful Democrats in the state Legislature — Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin — have supported reproductive rights, including a 2019 bill that restored $9.5 million in funding to such services as Planned Parenthood that had withdrawn from federal funding programs that prevented them from referring women for abortions.

Sweeney and Coughlin decide the Legislature's schedule, and which bills move forward and when. A spokesperson for Sweeney, D-Gloucester, declined to comment. A spokesperson for Coughlin, D-Middlesex, said the bill remains under consideration.

In addition to lobbying from the New Jersey Catholic Conference, opponents have planned protests at lawmakers' offices, including Coughlin's, urging him not to move the bill.

The Reproductive Freedom Act was introduced seven months ago. Some Democrats who support a woman’s right to choose want to wait and see what the Supreme Court will decide before it advances.

“If they don’t meddle, I would think we have what we need at the moment,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester. "From my standpoint we’re waiting to see what they do. If they try and restrict a woman’s right to control her body, we're going to have to step in. And we will step in.”

Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex, said she co-sponsored the bill to “make it clear that New Jersey will stand up to the Supreme Court if it tampers with the rights established by Roe v. Wade."

But hesitancy to advance the bill during an election year has led to growing calls for action from advocates and other Democrats.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Bergen County Democrat who sponsored the bill, said she does not believe election concerns should delay action on the act. Weinberg will retire early next year after 28 years in the Legislature.

"Every other year is an election year for the Legislature, and a woman's right to choose is embraced by the majority of the residents of the state of New Jersey," she said. "I don't think this is risky."

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, a Democrat who is seeking to take Weinberg's seat in the Senate, said the Supreme Court decision to take up the Mississippi abortion case means that lawmakers should act quickly.

"Now more than ever, alarm bells are sounding because of what is happening in Mississippi, putting Roe on the chopping block once again," she said.

To legislative leadership, Huttle added: "Enough with the excuses."

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