Vermont may already be the most abortion-friendly state in the nation — there are no restrictions in state law — but a bill to put unfettered access in writing has raised alarm about sanctioning late-term procedures and opening the door to another Kermit Gosnell.
H. 57, which went Tuesday before the state’s House Judiciary Committee, would prohibit regulations that interfere with “an individual’s right to choose” and forbid the prosecution of “any individual” for performing or attempting an abortion.
The companion bill, S. 25, adds that health-care workers “performing or assisting with a legal abortion procedure shall not be subject to any civil, criminal, or administrative liability and penalty.”
To pro-life advocates, the language sounds like an invitation for abuse. If an unscrupulous hack — think Gosnell, a former doctor convicted in 2013 of killing three infants at his Philadelphia clinic — were to hang up a shingle, “there’d be nothing we could do about it,” said Mary Hahn Beerworth, Vermont Right to Life executive director.
“Planned Parenthood says trust us, and everybody loves Planned Parenthood here. They’ve dominated the state for decades,” said Ms. Beerworth. “But they’re not thinking, or they don’t care, that somebody could just move here tomorrow and undercut Planned Parenthood for price and run a Gosnell-like clinic.”
The Gosnell scenario comes as only one of the concerns surrounding the legislation introduced as part of a national Democratic push to codify abortion in state law as a bulwark against the possibility of the Supreme Court overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.
New York and Virginia have come under fire for bills making it easier to obtain late-term abortions, even allowing procedures up until birth, but the Vermont bill is at least as sweeping in that it ensures the status quo in a state where abortion limits were lifted in a 1972 court decision.
Eileen Sullivan, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, argued that the bill would actually help protect against shady providers like Gosnell by giving patients legitimate options.
“Kermit Gosnell ran a criminal enterprise, not a health care facility,” she said in an email. “His case makes clear that we must enforce the laws already in existence that protect access to safe and legal abortion, and we must reject misguided new laws that would limit patients’ options and lead them to seek treatment from criminals like Gosnell.”
At last week’s public hearing, Chloe White, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Vermont, emphasized that the bill “makes no changes as to what is already legal in this state.”
“We want to reiterate that this bill does not change anything about current practice here in Vermont,” she said in prepared testimony. “It simply safeguards the right to abortion and codifies what is already legal in the state.”
It turns out, however, that not all Vermonters are comfortable with no-limits abortion. An unintended consequence of the legislation and ensuing media attention is that residents are grappling with the reality of the state’s “breathtaking legal abortion,” as Ms. Beerworth put it.
“They [legislators] are insulated inside the statehouse,” said Ms. Beerworth, who’s also a lobbyist. “But outside the statehouse, I think there’s a horror. There’s a community feeling that ‘Wait a minute, what are we doing?'”
Two state legislators have reportedly withdrawn their support — the bill still has more than 90 co-sponsors — and an estimated two-thirds of the 1,000 people who turned out at last week’s public hearing sided with the opposition.
“Vermont House committee approves unlimited abortion bill despite massive public outcry,” said True North Reports in a Feb. 7 headline after the Human Services Committee passed the measure.
Republican state Sen. Joe Benning argued in an op-ed that Vermonters “should never protect providers who act with gross negligence or willful malfeasance,” while Lawrence Zupan, the Republican who lost to Sen. Bernard Sanders in November, said even pro-choicers should be wary.
“This ghoulish, grisly, and garish proposed law would codify abortion — at any stage, right through the day before birth — as a fundamental human right,” said Mr. Zupan in a Manchester Journal op-ed.
In Pennsylvania, Gosnell was able to operate under the radar for years because the state health department “thought it could not inspect or regulate abortion facilities because that would interfere with access to abortion,” said Americans United for Life president Catherine Glenn Foster.
“By lowering professional accountability, abortion facilities in Vermont will be free to operate without regulation and oversight, to the detriment of women and young girls,” she said in written testimony.
The House Human Services Committee appeared to soften the bill by striking a line that said a “fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus shall not have independent rights under Vermont law” following criticism that the aborted fetal tissue could be used for experiments and organ harvesting.
At the hearing, however, Ms. Beerworth said legislators agreed that removing the mention would change nothing because the current law does not recognize fetal rights.
“They took it out with the clear understanding — I was there in committee — that it doesn’t make any difference, that the fertilized egg and fetus still have no rights under Vermont law,” she said.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill Jan. 22, the anniversary of the Roe decision, while the Virginia legislation was defeated after state Republicans tabled it in subcommittee.
In New Mexico, H.B. 51, a bill lifting abortion restrictions, was approved by the House on a 40-29 vote last week and sent to the Senate. Democrats control both houses of the legislature.
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a pro-choice Republican, said two weeks ago he supports the idea of legislation to protect Roe without saying he would sign a specific bill. Democrats control both houses of the state legislature.
Planned Parenthood has struggled nationally in recent years with clinic closures and declining patient visits, but the organization is thriving in Vermont. The Northern New England chapter operates 12 health centers in the state of 623,000, versus four in Maine and five in New Hampshire, according to the 2017 annual report.
“Our rights are at risk,” said Ms. Sullivan. “Elected officials in Vermont must take an affirmative stance by passing H. 57 to send a clear message to all Vermonters that they stand for the protection and preservation of reproductive rights.”
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