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Vermont Considers Bills to Protect Health Workers for Reproductive Care


Published January 27, 2023 at 5:10 p.m.

Marching in Burlington for abortion rights - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Marching in Burlington for abortion rights
Vermont lawmakers are considering bills to protect health workers who provide reproductive and gender-affirming care from legal threats that originate in other states.

Doctors, nurses and support staff worry they could face legal exposure or harassment if they treat patients who travel to Vermont from the increasing number of states where the services are banned or restricted.

Two bills now making their way through the legislature would clarify that such services are legally protected in the state. S.37 would protect providers from ramifications such as increases in insurance rates or professional disciplinary action for providing the services. Hearings on that bill begin next week in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.

H.89 focuses on legal protections for such providers, including prohibiting Vermont courts from cooperating with criminal or legal challenges that originate in other states.

The so-called shield law is modeled after one passed in Massachusetts last year. The House Judiciary Committee dove into the draft bill this week, wrestling with the complex legal and constitutional questions that have arisen since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022 and left regulation of abortion to the states.

Rep. Martin LaLonde (D-South Burlington) noted that several states have not only restricted access to such care within their own borders but also have made it clear that they will try to prevent residents from seeking the care elsewhere.

“When the residents come to Vermont and receive reproductive or gender-affirming care, these states will try to hold Vermont providers criminally or civilly liable,” LaLonde told his committee last week. The bill would “check the overreach of other states,” he said.

But the nation’s legal system relies on states respecting one another’s independent legal systems, such as by extraditing people arrested in one state to face trial in another.

Article IV, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution requires that “full faith and credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State.”

Without some legal collaboration between the states, there would be chaos, Michele Childs, a legislative attorney, told the committee this week.

The bill would block Vermont courts from honoring out-of-state subpoenas compelling people to testify in civil cases stemming from such health care decisions. It would also prohibit state employees from cooperating in investigations into the health care procedures. And it would give medical providers the right to countersue and recover financial damages if they were charged or sued for the care.

This would extend not just to doctors and nurses but also to people who help someone come to Vermont and receive care, from the person organizing their flight to the Uber driver picking them up at the airport, LaLonde told colleagues.

The bill is effectively saying, “You can do what you’re doing in that state, but if you’re trying to involve us in it, we’re not going to help you,” Childs told the committee.

The ability of a physician in one state to provide care to a patient in another — such as through telehealth or prescriptions for abortion pills sent by mail — complicates the issue, Childs said. The threat of civil litigation against Vermont providers is real because other states have passed laws to make it possible, Childs explained.

In 2021, Texas banned abortions after about six weeks. The law relies on private individuals to sue health care providers who perform abortions and sets minimum damages at $10,000 per procedure.

“Instead of state actors trying to enforce the abortion ban, they’ve tried to get around the judicial review by having private citizens do it,” Childs said of the Texas law. “It could be anybody.”

The bill also seeks to protect access to reproductive health clinics, making it a misdemeanor to “knowingly injure, intimidate, harass, or interfere with” a person seeking such care.

Doing so would be punishable by fines of up to $1,000. The added language is needed because since the Dobbs decision struck down Roe, there has been an uptick in out-of-state groups targeting abortion providers, said Lucy Leriche, vice president of public policy for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.

At least two clinics have been vandalized since the ruling, Leriche said. A group of students from Thomas Aquinas College in Northfield, Mass., has begun protesting in front of a clinic in Brattleboro, including “peeking in windows” and “praying at people,” she said.

Leriche said the House bill is the “natural expression of the values” that Vermonters made clear when, in November, they overwhelmingly approved enshrining “reproductive liberty” into the state constitution.

 Since the Dobbs decision, 18 states have passed some form of abortion restrictions and dozens of bills have been introduced seeking to restrict gender-affirming care, she said.

“Given the hostile environment nationally, it is critical that our state take every available opportunity to protect access to this care for those in our state and for our neighbors forced to travel away from home to get necessary, time-sensitive care,” she said.

Abortions in Vermont were up about 10 percent last year due to women traveling from out of state for the procedure, she said. One woman drove all the way from Nebraska, passing several states where abortion is legal, because “she felt safe coming to Vermont,” Leriche said.

Attorney General Charity Clark told the committee that the bill had her office’s full support. Lauren Hibbert, deputy secretary of state, said her office supports the part of the bill that would expand the Safe At Home program, which keeps the addresses of domestic violence victims confidential. Workers providing these health care services would become eligible for the program under the bill.

The House bill enjoys dozens of supporters. Rep. Ken Goslant (R-Northfield) said he'd like to hear from opponents of the bill, but LaLonde said he hadn't been contacted by anyone.

"I find that very interesting," Goslant said.

LaLonde encouraged any committee members to suggest others who might want to testify next week.

"We’re very open to hearing contrary views," he said.