Kamala Harris praises N.J. abortion laws at NAACP conference

By: - July 18, 2022 4:53 pm

Vice President Kamala Harris warned more restrictions on abortion could come if Democrats grow complacent ahead of November's elections. (Edwin J. Torres/NJ Governor’s Office)

Vice President Kamala Harris praised New Jersey’s abortion protections during appearances at the NAACP’s annual conference Monday, contrasting the state’s rules with those in some Republican states that have sought to criminalize the procedure since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

“What we are seeing around the country are extremist, so-called leaders who are passing laws with the intention of criminalizing public health professionals, punishing women for making decisions that are intimate, private decisions,” Harris, a Democrat, said at a roundtable with state elected officials and other leaders.

New Jersey’s abortion laws have, so far, been unaffected by the high court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. In January, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill codifying New Jersey’s abortion protections, which before then relied on case law, into statute. Under that law, the Department of Banking and Insurance will eventually make a recommendation on whether insurers should be required to cover abortions.

Earlier this month, the governor signed separate measures that blocked the release of abortion-related medical records, barred cooperation with abortion probes launched in other states, and banned the extradition of people in New Jersey for charges related to abortion.

“We’re not going to extradite patients who obtain abortion care services, and we’re not going to punish doctors who provide abortion care and reproductive health services that are legal in New Jersey,” acting Attorney General Matt Platkin said at Monday’s roundtable.

President Joe Biden earlier this month signed an executive order to emphasize the White House’s support for abortion access, increase the availability of contraceptives, and guarantee some other protections — like legal protections for health care practitioners who perform abortions when pregnancy complications threaten a mother’s life.

That order — coupled with new Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services guidance on a 1986 federal law called the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) — could allow abortions to protect the life of the mother even in localities that have banned the procedure without exceptions, said Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, the federal administrator who oversees Medicare and Medicaid.

“To be clear, if a patient has an emergency medical condition and an abortion is the treatment for that condition — for example, an ectopic pregnancy where the pregnancy is outside of the womb and could rupture at any moment — then EMTALA preempts any directly conflicting state law or mandate that would otherwise prohibit that treatment,” she said.

Harris added the Biden administration is seeking to codify Roe on a national level, but such efforts will almost certainly be defeated by Republican opposition in the Senate.

The vice president urged her fellow Democrats to turn out at the polls in November, when every member of the House of Representatives, 35 seats in the Senate, and countless positions at the local, county, and state levels are on the ballot. Abortion restrictions elsewhere in the country were approved by lawmakers at the state level, she noted.

“Those elections will matter at every level. Who is your district attorney will matter. Who is your governor will matter. Who is your attorney general will matter. Who is the secretary of state will matter,” she said.

Though Democrats applauded Harris’s visit, she got a chillier reception from Republicans and abortion opponents.

Marie Tasy, executive director of New Jersey Right to Life, charged the vice president’s focus was misplaced. Instead of boosting abortion access, Tasy said, the state should focus on supporting organizations that encourage women to carry pregnancies to term and, sometimes, provide assistance post-birth.

“New Jersey does not have an access problem. We have an abortion problem, and we need to help women in these situations and crisis pregnancies, and we don’t help them by telling them to kill the child in their womb,” Tasy said. “We help them by providing material support, financial support, diapers, clothing. This is how we help women, and this is the work that the pro-life crisis pregnancy centers have been doing for the last 49 years.”

Others saw Harris’s visit, made as Biden’s average approval rating sank below 39%, as a self-inflicted political wound that would bring more energy to New Jersey’s GOP electorate.

“I will say this about not only the vice president but the Biden administration: Please keep sending them to the state of New Jersey,” said Sen. Michael Testa (R-Cumberland). “That will guarantee that more and more Republicans get elected.”

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.