Vermont lawmakers on Tuesday endorsed an amendment to the state constitution that would guarantee the right to abortion and contraception. The measure, known as Prop 5, passed 107 to 41. It will go before voters in November as a binding referendum.
“We can no longer rely on federal courts to uphold the protection of fundamental reproductive rights,” said Rep. Ann Pugh (D-South Burlington) before the vote.
Outside of Vermont, abortion prohibitions are becoming more common. Between January 2011 and July 2019, states enacted 483 new abortion restrictions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights and policy organization. The laws created in those eight years account for nearly 40 percent of all the abortion restrictions enacted since the landmark Roe v. Wade case was decided in 1973, the institute reported. And the U.S. Supreme Court appears likely to limit or overturn Roe.
Vermont lawmakers have been working since April 2019 to enshrine reproductive rights in the state constitution. The measure was previously passed by the Vermont Senate.
In hearings, abortion opponents have testified against the proposed amendment, saying it would open the door to unrestricted access to abortion at any stage of pregnancy. That testimony continued on the House floor Tuesday. Amending the constitution might enable other unforeseen changes, such as legalization of prostitution, said Rep. Arthur Peterson (R-Clarendon).
“Will taxpayers be on the hook to pay for abortion, sterilization, infertility and surrogacy, gender-changing surgeries and Planned Parenthood itself?” Peterson said. “What about those of us who conscientiously object on moral grounds to supporting these procedures? These questions should be on the mind of everyone as we decide this issue today.”
Rep. George Till (D-Jericho) said he had been working to counter misinformation about Prop 5, including claims that it would lift all restrictions on abortion and would allow abortions at any time of the pregnancy. It wouldn't change anything in the state’s existing laws regarding reproductive health care, Till said. He added that medical care decisions should rest with patients and health care providers.
“The legislature should not dictate if you can have a hysterectomy; it should not dictate who can have a tubal ligation. It should not dictate if I can get a vasectomy,” said Till, a physician.
Five bills have been introduced in the current legislative session aiming to restrict access to reproductive health care, Till said.
"Abortion restrictions are political tools designed to make abortion harder to access," he said. "They are not designed to increase safety, nor to improve the medical standards of care."
When Rep. Anne Donohue (R-Northfield) stood to speak on the House floor, she said she didn’t expect to change any minds about abortion.
“But I hope to convince every person on either side to leave here today slightly less certain than when they came in,” said Donohue. She added that it would be a mistake for Vermont to cement existing beliefs about abortion into the constitution when those beliefs might change over time.
“Good people have in the past made grievous mistakes and violated human rights whether through imperialism or slavery or eugenics,” Donohue said. “Perspectives of time make us recognize they were evil, but in their time they were in accord with their society’s values.”
The question before House members Tuesday was not whether or not women should have abortions, Rep. Felisha Leffler (R-Enosburg) reminded her colleagues.
“The question is, do people have a right to privacy and liberty from their government in the most private of matters in their life?” she said. “My vote is to provide my constituents and all Vermonters with the ability to directly vote on this matter in November.
“I ask my colleagues here today to value liberty over personal bias and vote accordingly.”
Amendments must be approved in two consecutive bienniums, and when they go before voters, require a majority to pass. The last time Vermonters amended the Constitution was in 2010, when they approved allowing 17-year-olds to vote in a primary election as long as they would turn 18 before the general election.
Lucy Leriche, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of New England, urged Vermonters to approve Prop 5 in November. “If we succeed, this will be a groundbreaking achievement,” she said after the House vote. “Vermont will become the first state in the nation to explicitly protect reproductive rights in its constitution and pave the way for other states to do the same.”
The legislature endorsed another constitutional amendment last week, one that more explicitly bans slavery and indentured servitude.
Correction, February 8, 2022: A previous version of this story misstated Felisha Leffler's party affiliation.