The national debate over abortion rights will land in Vermont next year, when Senate Democrats plan to pursue either legislation or a constitutional amendment that would codify at the state level a legal right to abortion.
Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint says the advent of a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court has rekindled fears over abortion rights in Vermont. And she said enshrining in law “a woman’s right to choose” will be at the forefront of Senate Democrats’ policy agenda during the 2019 legislative session.
“We are very concerned about motions that the federal government has been making, and certainly with the Supreme Court appointment,” Balint said, referring to the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh earlier this year.
Senate Democrats’ legal strategy may include a proposal to amend the Vermont Constitution, something that’s happened only three times in the past 40 years.
Amending the Vermont Constitution is a multi-year process: The amendment has to pass by two-thirds majority in the Senate and a simple majority in the House in the first year of a legislative biennium, and then pass through both chambers again during the second year of the biennium.
The amendment then goes to voters in the form a ballot initiative; if the proposal wins a simple majority, the Constitution is amended.
Balint said the Senate is also considering conventional legislation as a means of accomplishing its goal.
“We are not entirely clear what form it will take to codify a woman’s right to choose in Vermont, but it’s something that we’re all committed to in this upcoming session,” Balint said. “We know that the court has swung to the right and we want to make it abundantly clear that in the state of Vermont, we want women to have control over their own bodies.”
Mary Beerworth, executive director of Vermont Right to Life, said the prospect of an abortion-rights constitutional amendment “frankly is ludicrous and just a waste of time for the Legislature.”
Beerworth said a Vermont Supreme Court decision in 1971, called Beechman v. Leahy, legalized abortion in Vermont even before the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade. And she said that precedent will remain in Vermont case law no matter what happens at the federal level.
“So abortion has been legal in Vermont for all those decades without any restriction or regulation on the practice of abortion. It’s just the way it is. I don’t know what more they want,” Beerworth said.
According to one legislative official, Vermont does not have any statutes on the books that create an affirmative right to abortion. It also dos not have any statutory restrictions to abortion, such as a parental notification law.
If lawmakers do take up the question of abortion rights, Beerworth said they better be prepared to answer tough questions about potential restrictions on those rights.
“What about notifying parents?” Beerworth said. “In the age of #MeToo, it seems to be that we ought to be trying to get parents involved before an abortion is performed so that we can actually find out if there’s been an assault of some kind, instead of letting it get hidden and covered up.”
In a recent public letter, Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe said it’s still unclear whether the new balance of power in the U.S. Supreme Court will undermine abortion rights nationally.
“What is quite clear, though, is that any action by the Supreme Court will not expand reproductive rights but erode them,” Ashe said. “It’s also likely the court will shift responsibility for these policies back to the states.”
And if that happens, Ashe said, “we will ensure there is no lag in legal rights to reproductive health services in the event of a court ruling that undercuts the established principles in Roe v. Wade.”