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Pared-down abortion codification bill passes Senate, Assembly committees

By Joey Fox

Originally published to New Jersey Globe on January 6, 2022

The Senate Health, Human Services, and Senior Citizens Committee and Assembly Appropriations Committee today both advanced a pared-down version of the Reproductive Freedom Act, a long-languishing bill aimed at codifying Roe v. Wade into state law, potentially clearing the way for the bill to speed through the remainder of the legislature in the final days of the lame duck session.

No reference to the bill was made on either official committee schedule, and it was not brought before the Senate committee and advanced until nearly 6 p.m. – a full six hours after the committee meeting was scheduled to begin.

While the original form of the bill, championed by Gov. Phil Murphy and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck), included a number of wide-ranging provisions such as mandating insurers cover abortions and loosening restrictions on procedures performed later in the pregnancy, the version passed today had one simple goal: guaranteeing abortion and contraception access under state law.

“The bill codifies the constitutional right, which has been recognized by the New Jersey Supreme Court, to freedom of reproductive choice, including the right to access contraception, to terminate a pregnancy, and to carry a pregnancy to term,” the bill’s text reads.

Also included in the bill is a requirement that incarcerated individuals be granted access to abortions, and the creation of a study by the Department of Banking and Insurance (DOBI) into the necessity an insurance mandate; should the study find that a mandate is necessary, the bill grants DOBI the ability to implement it.

Such language does not guarantee that such a mandate will come to pass, however, something which representatives from a number of pro-abortion access groups highlighted in their testimony before the committee.

“[We oppose] this bill for one reason: it contains no provisions to make sure that everyone, regardless of income, zip code, insurance coverage, or immigration status, can make health decisions with dignity,” said Sheila Reynertson, a policy analyst at the progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, at the Senate committee hearing.

But the bill also faced criticism from the right, with John Tomicki of the League of American Families testifying both in opposition to the bill’s content and to the hurried process that led to today’s hearing.

“I would ask you to reconsider moving this bill in this session, to allow more time to understand every nuance that’s in the bill that’s just been presented to us,” Tomicki said. “You had many months to move the bill in some form. I think to do it in this manner – you are all better than that.”

First introduced more than a year ago, the original Reproductive Freedom Act immediately faced hurdles from both Democratic and Republican legislators who were nervous about some of its effects beyond codifying abortion. Admitting that they wouldn’t have the votes to pass the bill, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-South Amboy) and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) never brought it before their respective committees.

The limited version passed today, then, is likely made in deference to those legislators who might have been opposed to the original bill. It also represents the final piece of legislation authored by Weinberg, who resigned from the Senate today to take a seat on the Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield board of directors, and thus will not be able to vote for her own bill.

But with so few days left in the lame duck session, it may still be a difficult task to maneuver the bill through a full voting session of both the Senate and Assembly before time runs out.

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