By Susan K. Livio and Brent Johnson
A day after the U.S. Supreme Court weighed the legality of a Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks — a case that could upend the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling — activists in New Jersey on Thursday demanded lawmakers pass a bill that would protect and expand access to abortion and contraceptives in the state.
If the high court weakens or overturns Roe v. Wade — and comments made by conservative members of the court appeared to suggest that was likely — abortion squarely becomes a state issue. Gov. Phil Murphy and lawmakers will help decide how far New Jersey will go to protect abortion access.
Supporters who rallied outside the Statehouse in Trenton came to promote the Reproductive Freedom Act, a bill that has stalled since it was introduced last fall, and to reflect on the distinct possibility a conservative-leaning court could weaken abortion rights in America.
“Three generations of American women have never known a world without reproductive freedom. … But now, women face a new and dangerous world. A world where we no longer have the right to make decisions about our bodies and our futures,” said Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, D-Essex, a sponsor of the bill. “We at least want to see New Jersey protected.”
Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, D-Passaic, said it was “painful last night to watch the news.”
“This is about us respecting the decisions we make and to have autonomy over our bodies,” Sumter said.
The Reproductive Freedom Act (S3030), a bill introduced after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in September 2020, would enshrine Roe in state law but also expand access in New Jersey. The measure would make contraceptives free, require insurance carriers to cover abortion services, and allow advance practice nurses to perform more abortion services in the first trimester, among other changes.
Wanting to avoid a controversial issue before the Nov. 2 election, Democratic leaders in the state Legislature refused to post the bill for a hearing. With Republicans winning seven seats in the election in an upset, socially moderate and conservative lawmakers remain reluctant to unleash a debate.
Sarah Fajardo, the policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, told the gathering the bill “can’t wait.”
“As other states restrict access, we have the opportunity in New Jersey to do better,” Fajardo said.
When asked about the bill later in the day, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said he supports abortion rights and is “very concerned” about what the Supreme Court might do.
But he said he still needs to meet with Murphy and state Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, to discuss what the bill should include.
“I think there’s many concerns in the Legislature that (the current version of the bill) might be too much,” Sweeney said. “We’ll have that conversation.”
During a virtual event Wednesday with Planned Parenthood, Murphy said the threat to a woman’s right to an abortion “is not abstract.” The Democratic governor warned restrictions in other states could soon become national policy if the Supreme Court upholds them.
“These restrictions, if they come to fruition, will not affect the lives of every person equally,” Murphy said. “For those who have wealth, for those who are privilege and able to travel, the ability to access necessary medical care may be inconvenienced but will not be entirely obstructed.”
But, the governor said, “these medieval policies are nothing short of devastating” for people such as immigrants, people of color, low-income residents, and students.
“Your body belongs to you,” Murphy said. “The decision on whether and when to start a family is yours. Here in New Jersey, we believe the best way to support families and grow healthy communities is not through medieval and controlling reproductive policies but through protecting reproductive freedom and beyond.”
During the two-hour oral arguments before the nation’s highest court, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh repeatedly suggested states ought to decide whether to permit or prohibit abortion.
“Why should this court be the arbiter rather than Congress, the state legislatures, state supreme courts, the people being able to resolve this?” Kavanaugh asked. “And there will be different answers in Mississippi and New York, different answers in Alabama than California.”