Pro-abortion access advocates and lawmakers in Vermont are campaigning hard to convince voters to pass a state constitutional amendment in November that would legally protect the right to reproductive health care in the state.
But already, with landmark abortion case precedent overturned at the federal level and conservative states rolling back access across the country, lawmakers are looking past the election to what additional abortion laws could be passed come January’s legislative session.
On the table are at least two potential bills, early in development. The first, a so-called shield law, would protect patients who come from states where abortion is outlawed to Vermont to receive abortions, as well as the Vermont health care providers who perform those procedures, from out-of-state prosecution.
The second potential bill would place consumer protection restrictions on crisis pregnancy centers, which are facilities that offer some prenatal care, such as pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, but have explicit anti-abortion motivations. Thousands of such facilities exist across the country, including at least seven in Vermont.
Shield law ‘absolutely’ a priority
House Speaker Jill Krowinski, who previously worked for Planned Parenthood, told VTDigger that her “short-term” priority is electing a pro-abortion access majority in the Legislature come November, as well as getting the constitutional amendment Article 22 (which was referred to in the Legislature as Proposal 5) across the finish line.
Even in a state where the majority of voters tell pollsters abortion should remain legal, Krowinski said “we can't take it for granted” that Article 22 will pass easily. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been poured into the campaigns both for and against the amendment.
In the long term, Krowinski is working with fellow lawmakers, legal experts and stakeholders to workshop a shield law, which she said is “absolutely” a priority for the 2023 legislative session. Other states, like nearby Connecticut, have already passed their own shield laws, and Krowinski said she and her colleagues are learning from other state legislatures as they formulate Vermont’s version.
“We want to make sure that we are passing the strongest legislation and we're not passing something that could potentially have unintended consequences. It's really important that we get this right,” Krowinski said. “So we’re doing our research now with what's happening in other states, and working with organizations that feel strongly about this.”
Connecticut’s first-in-the-nation shield law was written to address both civil and criminal action against out-of-state patients and in-state doctors. On the civil front, it allows anyone sued in Connecticut using a law like Texas’s “bounty”-style abortion ban to countersue for damages, attorneys’ fees and other costs. It also protects patients and providers from complying with out-of-state summonses or subpoenas, and prevents Connecticut law enforcement officers from cooperating with out-of-state investigations.
One organization helping to draft Vermont’s version is Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. Lucy Leriche, vice president of public policy for Vermont, told VTDigger that the organization hasn’t formulated its own suggested bill language yet, but “we fully expect to have some kind of proposal for the Legislature by the beginning of the session.”
“We do know from our national office that this is a moving target and it's very complex legally, and we want to make sure that we're creating really quality legislation for Vermont that really does what we want it to do and doesn't end up with some negative, harmful, unintended consequences,” Leriche said. “So for that reason, we're proceeding cautiously and thoroughly.”
Asked to elaborate on those legal complexities, Leriche declined. To make public Planned Parenthood’s strategic conversations “could inadvertently help some of our opponents,” she said.
‘False and misleading advertising’
Crisis pregnancy centers’ use of digital marketing techniques to appear prominent in abortion-related internet searches has been well documented for years. A Google search for “abortion clinic Vermont” yields results for crisis pregnancy centers like Care Net in Barre, The Women’s Center in Middlebury and Aspire Now in Williston, along with results for Planned Parenthood’s locations. None of those crisis pregnancy centers actually offer abortion services or referrals.
Last month, when queried, Care Net’s board of directors told Seven Days in a written statement that such web strategy “is standard marketing practice by for-profit and non-profit businesses.”
Rep. Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, P/D-Burlington, called crisis pregnancy centers “deceptive” and “dangerous” for marketing themselves to people researching abortions, then working to dissuade patients from the procedure. She plans to draft a bill in 2023 that would crack down on what she deems false advertising, modeled after legislation first introduced by retiring state Rep. George Till, D-Jericho, who works as an OB-GYN.
“They've actually been proudly saying that they’re getting more sophisticated,” Mulvaney-Stanak told VTDigger. “So whenever people are like, panic searching at 3 in the morning when they realize they're pregnant, on TikTok or Google or wherever they go … these places are now getting smart enough to try to get in on top of the search functions.”
“If you're in a crisis, you're not going to be vetting these sites or these organizations to the nth degree, especially if it's the only one nearby,” she continued.
With Till retiring, Mulvaney-Stanak is carrying the torch on his legislation and said she wants to expand on it. Till’s bill, H. 634, last session didn’t make it through committee.
“Because of the time-sensitive and constitutionally protected nature of the decision to terminate a pregnancy, false and misleading advertising about the services offered by CPCs is of special concern,” the bill read. “CPCs have the constitutional right to say whatever they want against abortion, but it is an entirely different matter to defraud individuals about the services they offer.”
‘It won’t be enough’
There are other proposals on the table. Democratic candidate for attorney general Charity Clark in June rolled out her list of priorities to address the fallout of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, which struck down the federal right to an abortion and referred the issue back to state governments.
Clark said she plans, if elected, to work with state legislators to amend Vermont’s extradition laws in order to refuse turning over Vermont abortion providers to states where abortion is illegal, should they attempt to prosecute a Vermont provider. She also proposed amending state law to prevent another state from compelling a witness to appear in any criminal cases against an abortion provider, or a patient who traveled to Vermont to obtain an abortion. She also said legislation may be necessary in order to prevent law enforcement agencies from cooperating with out-of-state investigations.
Abortion is still legal in Vermont, and at a June news conference, Clark lauded Vermont’s existing statutes protecting abortion access, as well as Article 22.
“But there's more we can do to protect this fundamental value and a person's right to health care, to an abortion and bodily autonomy,” she said. “Without Roe, we need to create an infrastructure of support for people deprived of the human right to control their own bodies.”
Brenda Siegel, a Democrat challenging Gov. Phil Scott for the governor’s office in November, has also called for more action. Siegel’s platform includes a 10-part plan to protect abortion access in Vermont, much of it overlapping with proposals from other lawmakers. One of her proposals would establish a state fund to help cover the cost of out-of-state patients’ abortions, so they wouldn’t have to bill their health insurance.
“When the decision came down, I really felt an immense sense that we have to do better right now, that good enough is not enough,” Siegel told VTDigger. “Article 22 is something we all should say yes to and we should be promoting, but it won't be enough. We need to take seriously the threats of the erosion of our liberty that we know are coming from Washington right now, that we know are coming from the Supreme Court right now, and prepare ahead.”
Mulvaney-Stanak said she is also already brainstorming what more she can do come January. While she celebrated the possibility of Vermont becoming one of the first states to enshrine abortion rights into its state constitution, she said legislators “were unfortunately putting a lot of eggs into the basket of Article 22.” There are other barriers to access not addressed in the amendment, she said.
For Mulvaney-Stanak, the issue comes back to a lack of diversity in Vermont’s Legislature. People of childbearing age are “in a hyper-minority in that building,” she said.
“So the urgency to be like, ‘Yes, we need to do something immediately,’ is not as strong,” she said. “At the end of the day, if people, if their own bodies and their own families or peer group are on the line, you act differently. You have a different level of urgency. It's not that people don't care, because I think plenty of people in that building, the majority, clearly care about this issue deeply. ... But we cannot forget about the actual policymaking, which is thinking about how it actually plays out in real Vermonters' lives.”
Shaun Robinson contributed to this report.
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