Vermont House approves ‘Reproductive Liberty’ amendment

February 8, 2022 GMT

Lawmakers in the Vermont House of Representatives approved a proposal Tuesday to amend the state constitution that protects reproductive rights, including abortion.

After a sometimes emotional debate, lawmakers approved the proposal by a vote of 107 in favor to 41 against it. Now that the proposal has been approved by the Legislature, it will go before state voters in November for a binding referendum that will decide whether to amend the state constitution.

Democratic Rep. Ann Pugh, of South Burlington, said the amendment will not change the right to an abortion that Vermont women have enjoyed for 50 years, but, if approved in November, it would enshrine those values in the state constitution.

“While the right to reproductive autonomy, and abortion care, remains for the time being a fundamental right at the national level, it has been and continues to be under serious attack,” Pugh said. “In this turbulent time clarity is called for.”

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Vermont’s Reproductive Liberty Amendment, also known as Proposal 5, comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case that could bring about seismic changes to the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion.

The Vermont debate also comes at the same time as some Republican-led legislatures across the country are poised to further restrict abortions or ban them outright, while some Democratic-led ones are angling to ensure access.

Republican state Rep. Carl Rosenquist, of Georgia, said the proposal as written could make it unconstitutional for Vermont lawmakers to pass any kind of legislation that would “protect or preserve an infant’s life prior to full term.”′

“This is not who we are,” Rosenquist said during the debate that lasted just under one hour and 45 minutes. “We do not give greater freedom of expression and life to one group of people at the expense of others in our society. And yet, that is exactly what we were doing by passing Prop five.”

Vermont’s proposed amendment does not contain the word “abortion.” Proponents say that’s because it’s not meant to authorize only abortion, but would also guarantee other reproductive rights such as the right to get pregnant or have access to birth control. But others say vague wording could have unintended consequence that could play out for years.

Rep. George Till, a Democrat from Jericho and also an obstetrician and gynecologist at the University of Vermont Medical Center, said the amendment would change nothing for women seeking to terminate their pregnancies in Vermont.

It would not enable women to receive abortions until birth or that there would be no restrictions on abortion.

“What Prop 5 does mean is that the Legislature and governor will not determine what restrictions will be placed on abortion procedures,” Till said.

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Under current rules any abortions conducted beyond 22 must be approved by an ethics board. The reasons the board would approve an abortion after 22 weeks would be fetal anomalies or threats to the mother’s life, he said.

Republican Rep. Vicki Strong, of Albany, said that during her 12 years in the Legislature lawmakers have passed bills to protect chickens, livestock, pets and wildlife against inhumane treatment.

“On the other hand, no bill has been allowed to move forward that would help to protect the unborn from cruelty and inhumane treatment at any stage of pregnancy,” Strong said. “Nor have we passed any laws to help protect vulnerable young pregnant women, such as with a parental notification law.”

To amend the state constitution, Vermont law requires that a proposed amendment be passed by two consecutively election legislatures and then go before voters in a statewide referendum. Vermont began the process that could lead to the Reproductive Liberty Amendment 2019.

If approved by voters in November, it will take effect immediately.

At least 20 states, mostly across the South and Midwest, already have laws that would severely restrict or ban abortion if the high court overturns Roe v. Wade and leaves the issue up to the states. But more than a dozen states, plus the District of Columbia, have statutory protections in place for abortion rights, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights think tank.

In 2019, the same year the Vermont legislature began the process to amend the constitution to protect abortion rights, lawmakers passed a separate law that guarantees a woman’s right to an abortion.

Proponents say both the law and the proposed amendment are needed in the event that the U.S. Supreme Court ever overturns Roe v. Wade.