An abortion-rights bill approved by the House of Representatives Wednesday evening wouldn’t change the legal status quo in Vermont, but the legislation nonetheless spurred a six-hour debate on the House floor.
The House gallery was unusually crowded on Wednesday afternoon, with people dressed in pink Planned Parenthood shirts occupying some sections of the chamber, and people with stickers registering their opposition to House bill 57 sitting in others.
At the outset of Wednesday’s six-hour debate, South Burlington Rep. Ann Pugh wanted to make one thing clear:
“Let me explain what H.57 does not do: It will neither enhance nor restrict access to abortion in Vermont,” Pugh said.
Vermont law is silent on the issue of abortion. And what H.57 will do, Pugh said, is affirmatively express abortion rights in state law, so that if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, Vermont has a statutory backstop in place at the state level.
“Women should be able to make this very personal decision without political interference, and that is what this bill provides,” Pugh said.
But some House lawmakers, many of whom say they support abortion rights, think the legislation approved Wednesday goes too far.
“It may come as a shock to the people of this body - I support a woman’s right to choose,” Westford Rep. Bob Bancroft said. “But I don’t support an unfettered right, and that’s exactly what H.57 does.”
Bancroft was one of three lawmakers who introduced amendments Wednesday that would have imposed new restrictions on access to abortion. The amendments included ones offered by Georgia Rep. Carl Rosenquist that were aimed at abortions later in a pregnancy.
“Currently the most unrepresented person or thing in the world, or here in Vermont anyway, is a viable fetus that has not yet been born,” Rosenquist said.
Rosenquist’s amendments would have established legal personhood for “viable” fetuses, and also imposed strict regulations on any abortions performed after 24 weeks into a pregnancy.
Jericho Rep. George Till, an obstetrician, said there’s no need for the language, because there’s no doctor or hospital in Vermont that would perform an elective abortion of a viable fetus.
In situations involving abortions after 23 weeks, Till said hospitals convene ethics panels to vet the appropriateness of the procedure.
“And everybody there needs to be in agreement that the mother’s life is endangered by this and that the fetal anomaly is incompatible with life - not just severe, incompatible with life,” Till said.
Till said it would be inappropriate for the government to insert itself in often traumatic decisions made by patients and their doctors.
“It would not happen. It cannot happen in Vermont. So I really wish that we could speak in realities instead of trying to fear-monger,” Till said.
Lawmakers defeated that amendment and seven others, including one that called for parental consent for minors, and another that would have put new regulations on facilities where abortions are performed.
Northfield Rep. Anne Donahue questioned the need for the legislation. If the U.S. Supreme Court does overturn Roe v. Wade, she said Vermont’s existing statutory framework would provide the same legal protections that H.57 seeks to establish.
She likened passage of the bill to a parent pretending to kill an imaginary monster lurking under their child’s bed.
“There’s no monster here in Vermont, regardless of what happens in the U.S Supreme Court, but people are rushing in to kill the monster so they can assure people they have protected their right to abortion in Vermont, when that right is not under any threat,” Donahue said.
Shelburne Rep. Jessica Brumsted said the raft of abortion restrictions being passed in other states suggests that reproductive rights are in fact under threat.
“This is all causing chaos and confusion among … Vermonters, who want their rights protected and deserve to know where they stand,” Brumsted said.
The bill, which won preliminary approval by a count of 104-40 Wednesday, is set for a final vote in the House on Thursday. It then heads to the Senate, where lawmakers are expected to approve the measure.