Supporters of an abortion access bill gathered in Trenton in advance of voting sessions on Dec. 2, 2021. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)
Senate and Assembly committees approved a bill codifying New Jersey’s abortion protections into state law in a vote along party lines Thursday, but the bill lacks some provisions of the Reproductive Freedom Act championed by abortion rights advocates and Gov. Phil Murphy.
The new bill would provide women with the right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term and bar other governments in the state from imposing limits on abortions. Abortion rights activists have urged the Legislature to act, citing a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that could legalize abortion restrictions.
“With a woman’s right to choose under Roe v. Wade under attack in the U.S. Supreme Court, it is critical that we enact legislation rooted in the New Jersey Constitution that clearly and unequivocally protects freedom of reproductive choice, including the right to access contraception, the right to terminate a pregnancy, and the right to carry a pregnancy to term,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen).
The Freedom of Reproductive Choice Act — as the newer bill is called — would eliminate the earlier bill’s mandate that insurance carriers provide coverage for abortions. But it would allow the Department of Banking and Insurance to require health plans provide abortion coverage if a study finds a requirement is necessary.
The legislation does not provide a timeline for the study. Religious nonprofits can request an exemption from the proposed requirement if providing abortion coverage violates their beliefs.
The governor for months championed the Reproductive Freedom Act, which in addition to codifying abortion protections and mandating insurers cover the procedure, would have allowed a greater range of health care practitioners to conduct pregnancy terminations.
Thursday’s bill does not touch on the latter issue, though Murphy’s administration in December approved rules allowing advanced practice nurses, physician assistants, certified nurse midwives, and certified midwives to perform abortions.
The bills encountered fierce opposition from anti-abortion groups and heavy lobbying from pro-abortion rights groups. Lawmakers held hours of last-minute talks Thursday afternoon.
The process surrounding the new bill’s drafting drew criticism from some lawmakers, who worried about passing legislation without providing the public a chance to review it.
“While I am personally pro-choice, I have grave concerns about the process,” said Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen), who abstained. “It’s everything that’s wrong about how we do things down here. You can’t, with an issue of this magnitude, give notice 12 hours ago that you’re going to hear a bill that people have been giving testimony on, pro and con, for more than a year.”
Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex), the Senate Health Committee chairman, contested that view, noting much of the bill resembles previous versions.
“This bill has been around for months in some iteration or another,” he said. “The majority of this bill, the language of this bill, has been around since the beginning of the summer.”
Though the bill cleared committees, it still faces a bumpy path into law. Some Democrats who backed its movement through committee warned they may be less supportive when it comes to a vote in the full Legislature.
“I don’t know how you can say in a piece of legislation that a woman who is eight months, three weeks, and six days pregnant can have an abortion. I don’t understand how that can happen in any kind of civilized society,” said Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic), adding, “The thought that a woman does not have a right to control her own body is repugnant and repulsive.”
The bill does not set any limits on late-term abortions.
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