Vermont Senate OKs abortion-rights constitutional amendment

  • Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, speaks in favor of a constitutional amendment affirming a person’s right to reproductive freedom at the Statehouse on Thursday, April 4, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger VTDIGGER — GLENN RUSSELL

Published: 4/4/2019 6:02:53 PM
Modified: 4/4/2019 6:03:04 PM

The Senate on Thursday gave overwhelming approval to a proposed constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights in Vermont.

By a vote of 28-2, senators moved Proposal 5 forward for House consideration. The amendment, which is believed to be the first of its kind in the United States, eventually will go to Vermonters for a vote if it clears several more legislative hurdles.

Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden and chair of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, said the amendment is a “narrowly crafted proposal” that will “affirm the right to abortion as it currently exists in our state” in the event that federal law on the issue changes.

“Vermonters value the liberty and dignity to determine their own life course,” Lyons said.

The two votes against the proposal came from Sens. Brian Collamore and James McNeil, both Rutland Republicans. McNeil said the vote was “easy for me” because of his opposition to abortion in most instances.

“I do believe in women’s rights, but I also believe in the rights of a fetus — an unborn child,” McNeil said.

Proposal 5 – along with HB 57, an abortion-rights bill that passed the House earlier this session — are reactions to political and judicial changes at the federal level, including the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court.

There’s concern that those changes could jeopardize the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973.

Senators have not yet moved forward on HB 57 and instead focused on Proposal 5, which would amend the state constitution to say that “an individual’s right to personal reproductive autonomy is central to the liberty and dignity to determine one’s own life course and shall not be denied or infringed unless justified by a compelling state interest achieved by the least restrictive means.”

In language supporting the amendment — but not part of the proposed constitutional change — Proposal 5 also says that “enshrining this right in the constitution is critical to ensuring equal protection and treatment under the law and upholding the right of all people to health, dignity, independence and freedom.”

Amending the state constitution would take years. In addition to Thursday’s Senate vote, a majority of the House must concur; then, the matter would be taken up by both bodies again in the 2021-22 legislative biennium.

If both the Senate and the House approve the measure again, then the amendment would be submitted for voter approval. Proposal 5 currently contains an effective date of November 2022.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said Thursday that the House will take up Proposal 5 and schedule a public hearing on the matter.

Lyons also said her committee would be discussing HB 57.

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