Senate health leader looks to move on abortion-rights bill

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20190412WESTMAN2 - Senate health leader looks to move on abortion-rights bill

Sen. Rich Westman, R-Lamoille, left, questions Brynn Hare, a lawyer with the Legislative Council, far right, as the Senate Health Care Committee takes testimony on a bill to preserve the right to abortion at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Friday, April 12, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

A little over a week after approving a constitutional amendment protecting “personal reproductive autonomy,” senators are moving forward on a bill that would prohibit governmental entities from interfering with access to abortion.

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Friday took up H.57, which would put abortion rights in state statute. Committee Chair Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, said she’d like to see the bill – which already has passed the House – get through the Senate this year.

That’s in part because amending the Constitution will take several years. And there’s concern that, in the near future, political and judicial changes at the federal level could jeopardize the landmark Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973.

“Without H.57, we have no continuation of our current practice should Roe v. Wade be overturned,” Lyons said. “That is a huge, huge problem nationally. We don’t want to be subject … to some court decision that isn’t consistent with who we are and what our values are in this state.”

H.57 and the constitutional amendment, labeled Proposal 5, have been moving on parallel tracks through the Legislature this year.

Proposal 5 passed the Senate] April 4 on a 28-2. It’s now in the House Human Services Committee, which has scheduled a public hearing on the matter from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. April 17 in the House Chamber.

The proposal would amend the Vermont Constitution to say that “an individual’s right to personal reproductive autonomy is central to the liberty and dignity to determine one’s own life course and shall not be denied or infringed unless justified by a compelling state interest achieved by the least restrictive means.”

H.57 expands on that statement. It says no public entity can stop a consenting individual from choosing to terminate a pregnancy, and it also says the government cannot “prohibit a health care provider, acting within the scope of the health care provider’s license, from terminating or assisting in the termination of a patient’s pregnancy.”

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Additionally, the bill “recognizes the fundamental right of every individual who becomes pregnant to choose to carry a pregnancy to term, to give birth to a child or to have an abortion.”

Discussion of the bill Friday in Senate Health and Welfare focused partly on what the bill doesn’t do. For example, Brynn Hare from the Office of Legislative Council told senators that the bill does not undermine a federal ban on partial-birth abortion.

20190412INGRAM1 - Senate health leader looks to move on abortion-rights bill

Sen. Debbie Ingram, D-Chittenden, listens to testimony on a bill to preserve the right to abortion before the Senate Health Care Committee at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Friday, April 12, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

It also does not require any medical provider to offer abortion services, Hare said. “The only entity that this impacts are governmental entities,” she said. “It does not have any impact on provider choices.”

But Sen. Richard Westman, R-Lamoille, touched on a key debate on this year’s abortion bills when he remarked that the legal protection in H.57 “sounds rather unlimited.” Hare confirmed that, saying H.57 “reflects the existing state of affairs in Vermont, because there are no current, state-level legal restrictions on the right to have an abortion.”

Lyons said the committee will be taking testimony from providers on current abortion practices in Vermont. Providers have said abortions later in pregnancy do happen but are rare.

The committee also will hear from abortion opponents, though Lyons said she doesn’t intend to schedule a special public hearing on H.57, like a hearing held in the House in early February.

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, wondered whether Proposal 5 would make H.57 “moot.” But both Hare and Rep. Ann Pugh, the chief sponsor of the House bill, said that’s not necessarily the case.

Pugh, D-South Burlington and chair of House Human Services, said timing is an important issue. While Proposal 5 must clear several more legislative hurdles and a public vote before taking effect in 2022, H.57 would be effective upon passage by the Legislature.

The bill would “protect current practice right now, in a time of confusion, in a time where the freedom of an individual – the right of an individual – to make their own medical decisions is being threatened across the country,” Pugh said.

Lyons said her committee will thoroughly vet H.57. But she also is concerned about what will happen during the three years that would pass before Proposal 5 goes to Vermonters for a vote.

“In the meantime, there’s going to be all kinds of campaigning and misinformation,” Lyons said. “We would like to pre-empt that. So if this bill, H.57, will do that for us, then we’ll certainly act on it.”

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About Mike

Mike Faher reports on health care and Vermont Yankee for VTDigger. Faher has worked as a daily newspaper journalist for 19 years, most recently as lead reporter at the Brattleboro Reformer where he covered several towns and schools as well as the Vermont Legislature and Windham Superior Court. He previously worked for 13 years in his native Pennsylvania at The Johnstown Tribune-Democrat.

Email: [email protected]

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