A year after Dobbs, New Jersey abortion rights advocates celebrate wins — but fear backsliding

By: and - June 23, 2023 4:45 pm

Several proposals sought by abortion rights activists have stuttered in the Statehouse pipeline, leaving advocates with clear marching orders on what’s left to be done as they mark Saturday’s one-year anniversary of the Dobbs decision. (Dana DiFiliippo | New Jersey Monitor)

After the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down the federal right to abortion in a decision known as Dobbs, policymakers and advocates in New Jersey scrambled to protect access here, with every week seeming to bring a new bill or rally.

Since then, abortion has largely fallen out of the headlines because legislators early on enacted so many protections that it’s considered a sanctuary state for those seeking to end a pregnancy.

“We have stepped up in many ways that other states have not,” said Brittany Holom-Trundy, a senior policy analyst with progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective.

But those protections are “first steps,” Holom-Trundy cautioned.

Several proposals targeting abortion affordability and access for marginalized groups have stuttered in the Statehouse pipeline, leaving advocates with clear marching orders on what’s left to be done as they mark Saturday’s one-year anniversary of the Dobbs decision.

“Ultimately, the goal is to create a New Jersey where everyone has the right to grow their family how and when they want and have access to the reproductive health care choices that they need,” Holom-Trundy said.

Elections could change everything, another abortion rights advocate warned.

Abortion access remains at the whim of whoever holds the most power, said Jackie Cornell, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey. That’s why she’s already eyeing the next gubernatorial election in 2025.

“I don’t think New Jersey is a progressive state. I think we have progressive leaders in certain instances, but our state has always been fairly purple,” Cornell said. “So do I think the election matters? Absolutely. Do I think that a pro-reproductive majority is much more delicate than people realize? 1,000%. 2025 for us is really massive.”

Making matters more precarious for abortion rights advocates, federal officials retain the power to upend everything, Cornell said. She pointed to the ongoing battle — likely to be ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court — to preserve access to the abortion pill. More than half of abortions today are done by medication rather than clinical procedures.

“Despite the amount of support and advocacy and good policy and protections from the attorney general, there’s still a lot that can happen on the federal landscape that can undermine our state’s ability to continue to provide these protections,” Cornell said. “There’s still so much that is outside of the state’s control, and that makes it really hard.”

More than three quarters of the patients who visit Planned Parenthood’s 22 clinics in New Jersey live in poverty, making abortion affordability a top priority of the group. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Protections since Dobbs

Even before the Dobbs decision, state lawmakers — fearing the court’s conservative majority would topple Roe v. Wade — decided to act, introducing a bill known as the Freedom of Reproductive Choice Act. Gov. Phil Murphy signed it into law in January 2022, five months before Dobbs.

Besides codifying abortion rights, the law tasked the state Department of Banking and Insurance with studying whether the cost of an abortion is a barrier to low-income and uninsured women. That study came out in November, confirming affordability as a barrier.

Other protections followed, including a mandate requiring some health insurers to cover abortion care in full and new laws allowing women to get birth control without a prescription and banning the extradition of people who get or give abortions in New Jersey to states that criminalize it.

New Jersey also joined 30 other Democratic-led states in a “reproductive rights alliance,” while Attorney General Matt Platkin started a “reproductive rights strike force,” joined a legal brief Democratic attorneys general filed in April seeking to protect access to medication abortion, and issued a consumer alert in December over claims of deceptive marketing tactics by antiabortion crisis pregnancy centers.

Such policies made New Jersey a safe haven for people seeking abortions, which have risen since the Dobbs decision and typically top 4,000 a month, according to a new report.

Murphy spokeswoman Christi Peace said the governor has worked to protect and expand access to reproductive health care.

“The governor will continue to work with individuals and organizations both here in our state and around the nation to promote reproductive freedoms and seek solutions that will benefit the millions of Americans who deserve the ability to make their own reproductive decisions and access the reproductive health care they need,” she said in a statement.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed the Freedom of Reproductive Choice Act into law in January 2022, five months before Dobbs. (Edwin J. Torres/NJ Governor’s Office)

Priorities to further protect abortion rights

Still, some bills have stalled, with even some Democrats dragging their feet on the Murphy administration’s reproductive rights mission.

Much of abortion rights advocates’ unfinished business focuses on the affordability of abortion.

“Around the country, it is people with means that will always have access,” Cornell said. “So how do we make sure those without means have just as much access as those without?”

At Planned Parenthood, abortion is just a small part of what they do, with 13,600 abortion procedures last year at their 22 clinics, compared to 144,200 tests and treatments for sexually transmitted diseases. But no matter why patients go there, most live in poverty, with 77% reporting an annual income far below the federal poverty level.

Abortion affordability is a top priority of Thrive NJ, a statewide coalition of about 80 groups (including Planned Parenthood) that promote sexual and reproductive health and rights.

They want the state Department of Banking and Insurance to take action to require all state-regulated health insurance policies to cover abortion care without out-of-pocket costs, as seven states including New York already do, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective. In New Jersey, a state-mandated rules-making process hasn’t been completed and is holding up this coverage for people who work for large employers — those with more than 50 workers.

They’re also urging policymakers to fund abortion care for undocumented immigrants.

The group listed several legislative priorities too, with less than seven months before the current legislative session ends.

They want lawmakers to pass two stalled bills:

  • The Reproductive Equity Act, a wide-ranging proposal that includes allocating $20 million to beef up security at clinics, expand clinical training, and support clinics’ operational needs; requiring health care insurers to cover abortion; barring the disclosure of reproductive health care without the patient’s written consent; and creating the new crime of “interference with reproductive health services.” The bill has been stalled in both chambers since it was introduced a year ago.
  • Another bill would require the state to create a website with information on reproductive rights and providers in New Jersey and health coverage options. The Senate passed it last week but the full Assembly has yet to vote on it.

And they’d like to see more state funding to support abortion providers’ staffing, training, security, and infrastructure needs.

And while Cornell applauded Platkin’s consumer alert about crisis pregnancy centers, she’d like to see legislators tighten policies around data privacy and public health reporting as it relates to what she called “fake health centers.”

“If you’re practicing medicine and providing health care services, there are standards and reporting requirements, but these fake health centers are unregulated and living in a no man’s land right now,” Cornell said.

State law requires both reporting of communicable diseases and the confidentiality of health records, yet a lack of oversight means it’s a mystery whether roughly 55 crisis pregnancy centers around the state comply, Cornell said.

Beyond records and reporting, the lack of oversight also makes it impossible for authorities to know whether people are receiving adequate health care, she added. A sexually transmitted disease, for example, could lead to infertility and other cascading problems if misdiagnosed, she said.

“There are real consequences to doing this poorly,” Cornell said.

Several centers sued the state in February, calling the criticism “political or agenda-driven” and Platkin’s consumer alert a “misinformed and unwarranted assault” based on “speculative accusations” rather than any investigation or consumer complaints.

Eyes on the election

Some advocates are looking ahead to how the Dobbs ruling will impact the November election in New Jersey, where all 120 legislative seats are on the ballot.

During a recent Planned Parenthood fundraising event, activists said it’s crucial for abortion rights supporters to win elections to continue protecting abortion in New Jersey.

“It’s really important that candidates declare their values and share how they feel about abortion, how they feel about every single issue that impacts New Jerseyans and make sure they give voters something to vote for rather than to vote against,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

Lawmakers should add abortion affordability to their list of “kitchen table issues” as they campaign, he said.

Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11), who is rumored to be eyeing a run for governor in two years, said as other states increasingly restrict or ban abortion, the key to keeping New Jersey safe for people seeking the procedure is action by the Legislature.

“This state has a history of rolling back protections under Republican administrations,” she said. “I want to make sure that what it is passing now is resilient to other administrations and can’t be rolled back in the future.”

Antiabortion advocates fighting too

Meanwhile, antiabortion activist Marie Tasy called the Dobbs ruling an “awakening among the population of New Jersey.”

Tasy is executive director of New Jersey Right to Life. She became involved in antiabortion activism as a young mother 30 years ago, concerned about the future of her three children.

She criticized Murphy’s “radical” policies and Platkin for protecting the abortion industry.

“Clearly the state is being run by radical abortion supporters, and they’re supporting abortion not only by passing extreme abortion laws, but doing it with our tax dollars,” she said. “It’s unprecedented, and it’s shameful.”

Most New Jersey residents don’t support unlimited abortion, she said, pointing to an April poll the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion conducted on behalf of Right to Life. That poll showed more than 70% of respondents support some restrictions on abortion, while 35% believe abortion should be banned after six months.

“They support common sense laws, parental notification, believe that science should inform abortion policy. These are all things that the Murphy administration, they’ve done the opposite,” Tasy said.

She criticized Democratic lawmakers for refusing to act on several now-stalled bills that would restrict abortion in New Jersey. Such legislation includes proposals to ban the use of public money to support abortion, require people incarcerated in county jails to pay for their own abortions, and ban abortion after 20 weeks.

To that end, Tasy is paying close attention to the November election too. She’s seen more young people getting involved with the antiabortion movement, and she hopes they’ll vote, she said.

“We’re not going to give up the fight. It’s too important. We want to save lives. We want to help women who are in crisis,” she said. “And we believe eventually, New Jersey will follow the lead and pass laws that protect life.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.