By the Star-Ledger Editorial Board
Enshrining the right to abortion into New Jersey law is vitally important to protect women, given the risk that the U.S. Supreme Court may strike down Roe v. Wade. And to ensure this right is real, protecting insurance coverage for abortion is the other most important priority. Any bill that emerges in our state must contain those two crucial elements.
For now, though, let’s examine some of the other, less popular provisions of the Reproductive Freedom Act, a bill sponsored by Sen. Loretta Weinberg that’s expected to be heard in the Senate on Monday. These provisions may have to be sacrificed to ensure majority support for the core provisions, but that would be a shame, since each of them deserves support as well. Here’s a look:
Abortions late in pregnancy
The bill would also codify this right, one that many people may not realize exists in New Jersey. They fear that women will seek out abortions late in pregnancy for cavalier reasons and that doctors will perform them.
That moral concern is understandable: There is a difference between a fertilized egg deliberately expelled by an I.U.D. and an abortion in the third trimester. At some point, the fetus does deserve protection, as the Supreme Court found in Roe. But the question is, who is best positioned to provide that protection – state legislators, or a woman and her doctor?
Start with these facts: A small percentage of women get an abortion between weeks 21 and 24, for personal reasons. We don’t know how many, exactly, and without better data, we won’t know what we’re trying to regulate. But this much we do know: They say they would have preferred to have had the procedure sooner. And most say they struggled to find the money to pay for it.
These stories are heartbreaking, as they often choose to end the pregnancies due to horrible deformities that will cause their babies to suffer and die, or live in a vegetative state, or endanger a twin fetus. They wait to act because they don’t want to abort until a lethal abnormality is absolutely confirmed. Imagine being forced to go through a painful delivery, then the agony of your baby’s death – or having to make a premature choice to abort – because of a lawmaker’s ban at a certain week.
And all evidence shows that abortion late in pregnancy is not something a woman would choose to do flippantly. In the first trimester, an abortion takes no more than five minutes and costs about $550. At 20 weeks, it costs about $2,500, a price that increases with each week. It’s a two-day procedure that is agonizing for women like Lyndsay Werking-Yip, who had an abortion at 23 weeks to protect her baby girl with a severe brain deformity from a life of pain and suffering. She wears a locket with her ashes: “My child was lovingly cared for until her last heartbeat.”
Only 1 percent of abortions happen at or after 21 weeks, still well within the second trimester, and doctors set strict limits on when they will do them. “It can cause a severe trauma to the patient,” Dr. Kristyn Brandi, a New Jersey OBGYN who provides abortions in cases like this, told us. “This is not something that should be in the political domain. Any time legislation tries to get into the weeds about these things, it doesn’t really reflect what real care looks like.”
Parsing the exact phrasing of laws intended to protect the right of women to have an abortion late in pregnancy is an impossible task. So New Jersey, and this bill, let the law be silent. They let women and their doctors handle it, and respect the fact that they are more concerned about the fetus than any politician could be.
For some, abortions are delayed because of the expense, or problems with access. About 75 percent of abortions are among low-income patients, many of whom must raise the funds themselves. Ensuring they can get early, affordable abortions and easy access to contraceptives, as other provisions of this bill would do, is an obvious solution.
About 20 years ago, New Jersey’s Supreme Court struck down a law that would have required parental notification for young people seeking an abortion. Now this bill would codify that.
This is unpalatable to many parents. Having an abortion would be a major life decision for a kid, and there’s no other such decision that parents are excluded from. Why should abortion be different?
Consider how this plays out in practice. The Women’s Center in Cherry Hill, where provider Roxanne Sutocky works, also has two clinics in Pennsylvania, which does require parental permission. The overwhelming majority of young people who can safely involve their parents do, she says, because it’s the best way to get connected to a clinic, pay all the costs and get transportation.
The intent of a notification law is to ensure that a child faced with this decision gets parental input, guidance and love. But for young people for whom that’s not possible, the law is a blunt instrument. It makes no exception when a parent is not available, perhaps because of incarceration, or for a young person living with another relative, or in a family in which it’s unsafe to expose a pregnancy because of abuse.
In Pennsylvania, young people must leave school, go to court and be seen in front of a judge to obtain the right to have an abortion independent of a parent. Can you imagine how daunting that is for a 14-year-old victim of rape or incest? “It’s a very burdensome process, could be extremely overwhelming and time consuming, causing unnecessary delays for people accessing care,” Sutocky says.
Extending abortion coverage to undocumented residents
The governor already has money in the budget to cover this, under a state program that also provides birth control coverage and prenatal care for undocumented residents who have no other path to health coverage.
This bill would codify coverage for abortion too. If we’re funding for one pregnancy-related service as part of a long-established program, it makes sense to have parity to cover them all, so people are empowered with the full range of available options – especially if cost is a determining factor.
It’s not a huge investment for the state to make this expansion. Abortion care is the lowest cost option to provide, much more cost effective than forcing a woman to continue an unwanted pregnancy.
Opponents argue this option would lure people to illegally cross the border into our state and embolden traffickers. That’s nonsensical. You’d have to pay a lot more than the cost of a $550 abortion to emigrate into New Jersey, so this benefit is marginal. And if a victim of trafficking needs an abortion, isn’t it better that she relies on a trusted health care provider trained to recognize trafficking and provide help?
As the Legislature opens its debate on this, the priority must be to protect the core right to abortion and ensure that insurance covers it. But while these other provisions are less popular, a closer look shows they serve the public interest as well.