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Vermont House strikes down attempts to restrict abortion, approves sweeping protections

Published: 2/21/2019 9:09:09 AM
Modified: 2/21/2019 10:42:35 AM

House lawmakers on Wednesday advanced legislation that would protect abortion access without restrictions, after hours of debate during which they struck down a series of amendments that sought to limit the scope of the measure.

In a vote of 104 to 40, the Democratically controlled House, voting largely along party lines, gave preliminary approval to the bill, H.57, which was crafted over concerns that Roe v. Wade could be overturned by the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Before Thursday’s vote, Republicans had said they found the bill’s protections too far-reaching and signaled that they would not support it unless it was amended with restrictions.

The Republican measures included creating a 48-hour waiting period for abortions, making abortion after 24 weeks illegal and requiring parental consent for minors seeking the procedure.

Democrats heard a day’s worth of arguments in support of the changes, first in committees and then on the floor, but ultimately voted down each proposed change to the bill.

Critics of the legislation, which is expected to head to the Senate after passing on a second vote Thursday, say they are concerned that it will encourage and allow women to have abortions up until the time of birth. Abortions in the third trimester aren’t performed in Vermont.

Democrats pushing for the measure have said it will not change the way abortions are delivered in Vermont and that the bill is designed to enshrine in law what has been common medical practice for past five decades.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson told reporters Wednesday that the bill “does not change a thing” about abortion practice in Vermont.

“We have seen courts in some jurisdictions start to restrict existing rights and freedoms and we want make to sure that future women in Vermont have the same options and protections that women have had for the last 46 years here,” Johnson said.

Republicans on Wednesday sought to add provisions to the legislation that would prevent patients and providers from being able to carry out late-term abortions.

“Current practice, current practice, current practice — that’s what I keep hearing this bill is based on. But current practice can change,” Minority Leader Pattie McCoy, R-Poultney, said before Wednesday’s debate.

“This bill doesn’t have any bumpers around it,” she added. “I’d like to see some bumpers.”

McCoy and the majority of her caucus supported an amendment that would have made it illegal for women to receive abortions after 24 weeks, except in cases of medical necessity.

Democrats stressed that abortions delivered five or six months into a pregnancy are not common in Vermont: more than 90 percent of the time, the procedure is carried out in the first trimester.

Speaking on the House floor Rep. George Till, D-Jericho, a physician, said that under current practice, if a woman and her medical providers are considering an abortion after 23 weeks, an ethics panel has to approve the decision, even if the woman has a medical complication.

“This isn’t about the law, this is about the reality of what happens and it’s not going to change,” Till said. “I really wish that we could speak in realities instead of trying to fear monger.”

In a vote of 107-40, lawmakers struck down the amendment that would have criminalized abortions after 24 weeks.

“These are hard and difficult decisions that a woman has to make and they are best left between the woman and her physician, as they have been for the past 40 years,” Rep. Ann Pugh, the chair of the House Human Services Committee, said Wednesday, urging legislators to vote down the amendment.

Some of the measures proposed by Republicans, like those that would require and wait two days before receiving an abortion procedure, would make access to abortion much stricter than it is under current law and practice.

Rep. Carl Rosenquist, R-Georgia, proposed an amendment that would have given a fetus rights as a person under Vermont statute.

“The unborn are just not represented in our society,” he told lawmakers.

After the bill passed on its first vote Wednesday, Rep. Jim Harrison, R-North Chittenden, said he would have supported it if it had been amended.

“I leave with disappointment no doubt shared with many others,” Harrison said. “H.57 goes too far.”

In a statement Wednesday night, Lucy Leriche, the vice president of public policy for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, called the Republican amendments “burdensome” and applauded lawmakers for voting them down.

“The goal of this bill is to prevent government interference between a patient and their health care practitioner, and it is stunning to see just how far that intrusion could go if these amendments had passed,” she said.

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