- Matthew Roy ©️ Seven Days
- U.S. Rep. Peter Welch addressing protesters outside the federal courthouse in Burlington on Tuesday
The shock felt by many over the leaked draft of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade was tempered by the fact that Vermont law guarantees a woman’s right to an abortion, and voters will have the chance to enshrine that in the state constitution this fall.
Gov. Phil Scott opened his weekly press conference on Tuesday by reminding residents of the 2019 state law that affirms “reproductive health decisions are between a patient and their doctor, without government interference.”
The text of that law “recognizes the fundamental right of every individual who becomes pregnant to choose to carry a pregnancy to term, to give birth to a child, or to have an abortion."
The pro-choice Republican governor, who describes himself as a centrist and socially moderate, stressed that in November, voters will be able to codify that right in the state constitution through Proposition 5, which he supports. The ballot measure is also referred to as the Reproductive Liberty Amendment.
“At the end of the day, the fundamental rights and liberties of all women will be defended, protected and preserved here in Vermont,” Scott said.
Protesters gathered Tuesday evening outside federal courthouses around Vermont. In Burlington, U.S. Rep Peter Welch (D-Vt.) spoke to a crowd and called the decision "outrageous."
"We knew it was coming but we can't believe it would happen," Welch said. "This is setting back reproductive freedom by generations."
Abortion rights activists, while proud of steps taken to preserve a woman’s right to choose, say the development underscores the need for constant vigilance.
“I think this is a wakeup call for all of us,” said Lucy Leriche, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood Vermont Action Fund. “This state supports reproductive rights really strongly, but I’m not taking anything for granted, and Vermonters shouldn’t take anything for granted.”
Leriche recalled how she and supportive lawmakers were branded as “alarmist” for even suggesting the Supreme Court’s shift to the right under the Trump administration was something Vermonters needed to counter.
“Many of us could see this coming,” she said.
Polling has already indicated strong support for the passage of Proposition 5, and the leaked draft ruling will likely lead to more, she said.
“I think this is going to energize a lot of people,” she said.
Those who assume the state’s liberal politics will provide sufficient protection for reproductive rights need only consider the political backlash — especially from rural areas — that followed the passage of civil unions, she said.
Without the right to abortion access enshrined in the constitution, politicians could decide every two years to repeal the 2019 law and, if Roe v. Wade is repealed as expected, pass restrictions on abortion, she said.
The Vermont Republican Party adopted a platform on Saturday that reads in part: “We value the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.” VTGOP chair Paul Dame did not reply immediately to a request for comment. Scott said he did not vote on the platform.
Politicians released statements reacting to the draft Supreme Court ruling, which is not official and could change.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a former prosecutor, said he was saddened by the reports and concerned about the politicization of the nation’s highest court.
“If the reporting is correct, the Supreme Court could send us tumbling backward in time, stripping away a bedrock constitutional right that has granted women autonomy over their bodies and health for nearly five decades,” he wrote.
American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont executive director James Lyall warned of “dire consequences” for women’s health if the leaked ruling were finalized.
“No matter how this case is ultimately decided, the ACLU and our allies across the country will never stop fighting for the right of individuals to make reproductive healthcare decisions for themselves — including decisions about contraception, abortion, prenatal care, and childbirth," he wrote in a statement. "We will not tolerate having this fundamental right taken away.”
And Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, who was also at the protest in Burlington, said earlier Tuesday that if the reporting is accurate, it means “we are in the fight of our lives across Vermont and this country.”
There was no celebration over the pending ruling among the vocal minority of pro-life lawmakers in Montpelier. Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Northfield) said it would be foolhardy to assume a draft from months ago reflected the will of the court today. And even if the court ultimately rules in favor of letting individual states decide the fate of such procedures, Donahue said, she would take little solace in a scattershot approach to such an important issue.
“I personally think that a decision that kind of throws it to every different state every which way is not helpful to our country,” she said.
She would prefer instead a decision clarifying that unborn children deserve protection under the U.S. Constitution.