MONTPELIER, Vt. (BP) – Vermont has taken a major step toward breaking new ground in the state-by-state battle over abortion.
In a 107-41 vote Feb. 8, the Vermont House of Representatives approved an amendment to the state constitution that would ensure the right to an abortion. If the Reproductive Liberty Amendment is approved by a majority of voters in November, Vermont will become the first state to amend its constitution to enshrine abortion rights.
Vermont’s action came as states on both sides of the debate seek to enact laws either protecting or restricting the right to abortion in preparation for what could be a historic ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The high court is expected to issue a decision by this summer on a Mississippi law that prohibits abortion after 15 weeks’ gestation. Many pro-life and abortion-rights advocates believe the justices are likely not only to uphold the law but to reverse the 1973 Roe v. Wade opinion that legalized the procedure nationwide. Such a ruling by the Supreme Court would return abortion policy to the states.
With the Supreme Court decision “on the horizon, and the possibility of Roe being overruled, a critical cultural moment may be nearing as well,” said Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
“But as we rightly celebrate that potential turning point, there is much work to be done at the state level,” he said in written comments. “And we should be clear-eyed that pro-choice activists will be ready to advance their agenda in state legislatures across the country. This effort in Vermont is one of what we anticipate will be many initiatives to enshrine a right to abortion in state laws.”
Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, agreed other states may follow Vermont’s example.
“It is possible that other states will seek to amend state constitutions to allow for abortion and abortion funding throughout pregnancy,” she told BP in written remarks. “The abortion industry is going to fight as hard as they can for the ‘right’ to kill as many babies as they can. Pro-lifers have to be alert and ready to combat those deadly efforts.”
Leatherwood told BP, “It will be imperative that we meet this challenge with a consistent, pro-life witness in our states and local communities. That is why I am so thankful for pastors who consistently proclaim the value of life from the pulpit, Christians who plead for a culture of life and advocates who work for laws that protect life. Together, I believe we can turn a post-Roe moment into a pro-life reality.”
Vermont Rep. Ann Pugh, a Democrat, seemingly expressed the viewpoint of many abortion rights advocates when she said before the House vote, “We can no longer rely on federal courts to uphold the protections for fundamental reproductive rights based on the federal constitution,” according to The Washington Post.
The Supreme Court’s oral arguments in December regarding the Mississippi law raised the hopes of pro-life advocates and the concerns of abortion-rights defenders that the justices may be prepared to overturn Roe. Mississippi and many pro-life organizations, including the ERLC, asked the high court in briefs to reverse not only Roe but the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey opinion that affirmed that decision.
In their current legislative sessions, 25 bills already have been introduced in states to protect access to abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice, research organization. New Jersey enacted legislation in January to safeguard abortion as a fundamental right.
Meanwhile, 52 pieces of state legislation have been introduced to prohibit all or most abortions, Guttmacher reported.
In 2021, more state abortion restrictions – 108 – became law than in any other year since the Roe ruling in 1973, according to Guttmacher. States have adopted nearly 1,340 abortion limitations since Roe, and 44 percent of those were enacted in the last decade.
In recent years, states with pro-life legislatures and governors have increasingly approved bans on abortions with few exceptions or prohibitions on abortions when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can be as early as five to six weeks. Some states have enacted bans at other stages of pregnancy.
If Roe is overturned, 26 states are sure or likely to prohibit abortion, Guttmacher estimated.
Vermont voters are expected to approve the constitutional amendment passed by the General Assembly. A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center found 70 percent of adults in Vermont said abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
In Vermont, a constitutional amendment must be approved by both chambers of the General Assembly in consecutive sessions. Both Houses endorsed the Reproductive Liberty Amendment (Proposition 5) in 2019, and the Senate passed it again last year.
Vermont law already firmly supports abortion rights. The state has no major abortion limitations, such as waiting periods, parental involvement requirements or bans on government funding of the procedure, according to Guttmacher.