Brattleboro Selectboard drops local abortion resolution in favor of state constitutional amendment

A Brattleboro rally protests the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 24 ruling to overturn abortion rights. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — This town’s selectboard won’t adopt a local statement promoting abortion rights to avoid potentially complicating a statewide November vote on the issue.

The five-member board has spent a month considering a “Resolution to Protect Pregnant People’s Access to Abortion,” which has come with calls to financially assist supportive health care providers with up to $100,000 in tax money.

“In the face of oppressive action, oppressive laws, laws that take us backwards, laws that infringe on people’s liberties, it’s important to say that’s not OK and we’re not going to just go along,” selectboard member Jessica Gelter said of the proposal.

But the board learned this week it not only lacked the power to enforce the resolution but also could endanger state efforts to pass Proposal 5, the “personal reproductive liberty” amendment, to the Vermont Constitution. That measure, which has been approved twice by the Legislature, will be on the ballot Nov. 8.

“There are incredibly well-funded and well-organized folks who are not interested in this constitutional change passing and are going to be looking at any anomalies, any challenges, any foothold that they can get to try to overturn the results of the popular vote,” state Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, told the board.

The local resolution, if not legally sound, could unintentionally trip up state efforts, Kornheiser said.

Gelter drafted the proposed statement after hundreds of protesters descended on downtown Brattleboro to oppose the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 24 ruling to overturn abortion rights.

“If this does get passed,” Gelter said of her resolution, “it will set an example for other Vermont towns.”

The statement asked municipal officials to refuse to assist investigations of abortions, encourage the town “to recognize the safety needs” of health care providers when permitting opponents to protest, and support “safe, equitable and accessible reproductive health care for all of Brattleboro’s citizens through any means that it is able.”

But Town Attorney Robert Fisher has since said the selectboard doesn’t have the power to enforce many of the points the resolution sought to enact.

“The board only has the authority given to it by our charter and Vermont statutes that deal with municipal government,” Fisher told the board.

In the case of abortion rights, “it’s a state decision and not a town decision,” Fisher said.

The selectboard, in response, unanimously agreed to withdraw the resolution from consideration.

“We do not have the authority and I would not want to pretend that we do,” board member Daniel Quipp said. “And I do not want to jeopardize the constitutional amendment. I’m not about to do anything that even has a chance of messing that up.”

Gelter, for her part, still supports municipal government offering some sort of financial assistance for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and other local and national reproductive health providers, although her colleagues have said any such expenditure would need the approval of  Brattleboro’s Human Services Review Committee and of Town Meeting representatives.

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