Should Brattleboro town government support abortion rights? And spend tax money to do so?

Dueling scrawled and scribbled-out messages about abortion are chalked onto a wall outside Planned Parenthood offices in downtown Brattleboro. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — This town’s initial protest against the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling to overturn abortion rights was simple: 100 people congregating downtown to chant “My Body, My Choice.”

Ten days later, a local demonstrator, saying “forced birth is appallingly cruel and morally grotesque,” marched naked down Main Street, doused in fake blood, just before the start of the Fourth of July parade.

Now the Selectboard is considering making its own statement with “A Resolution to Protect Pregnant People’s Access to Abortion,” which comes with calls to spend up to $100,000 in tax money to financially assist supportive health care providers.

Within weeks, the conversation has grown much more complicated.

“If this does get passed, it will set an example for other Vermont towns,” Selectboard member Jessica Gelter said of the resolution she has proposed for discussion at the next board meeting on Aug. 2.

The draft statement asks 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.”

Gelter’s colleagues, presented with the proposal this week, are voicing diverse opinions.

Selectboard member Daniel Quipp is questioning whether local leaders can endorse a resolution they may not have the power to enforce.

“I think this is more of a statement of values rather than something with legal standing,” Quipp said. “I’m not sure what’s in this that would, in law, protect somebody.”

Board member Elizabeth McLoughlin is concerned about the town offering an opinion when a proposed Vermont constitutional amendment ensuring “personal reproductive liberty” is set for a statewide vote this fall.

“I feel the Selectboard is a nonpartisan body,” McLoughlin said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to be influencing that decision or even share what our beliefs and wishes are.”

Local activist Kurt Daims is urging the Selectboard to spend $100,000 immediately to support Planned Parenthood and other local and national reproductive health providers.

“You could fund it right away,” Daims said, “and later decide whether to take the money out of the unassigned fund balance or to raise taxes.”

Gelter supports local government offering some sort of financial assistance, although her colleagues say any such expenditure should be approved by Brattleboro’s Human Services Review Committee and Town Meeting representatives.

The Selectboard expects to discuss and possibly vote on the resolution at its next meeting, scheduled for Aug. 2.

Ivan Hennessy protests the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of abortion rights by marching naked down Brattleboro’s Main Street doused in fake blood just before the start of the local Fourth of July parade. Photo by Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons

The debate comes two weeks after local resident Ivan Hennessy — great-grandson of the late Catholic social justice activist Dorothy Day — stripped naked, splattered himself with fake blood and strolled down the middle of Main Street just before the start of Brattleboro’s Fourth of July parade.

“The Supreme Court’s rejection of medical privacy and bodily autonomy is not the only terrible injustice I’ve seen our government embrace,” Hennessy explained to the press in an email. “I hope that this small, but visible, gesture encourages others who have hesitated to act beyond voting and writing to legislators. We can join those who are already doing more.”

Photos of Hennessy proliferated on social media within minutes, setting off more than 150 comments on one post alone.

Wrote one local: “Can we talk for a second about a man using his male privilege to get attention for himself and say it’s for women? If he really cared about this issue, he would let us speak for ourselves instead making his own personal moment that we didn’t ask for or want.”

And a second: “He sexually assaulted everyone who didn’t consent to see that. In the Era of Me Too, he should be charged with a crime.”

Brattleboro has an ordinance that bans nudity in public places, but it’s a civil rather than criminal charge with a penalty of $100. Local police, seeing Hennessy surrounded by cameras, decided not to expand his spotlight with an arrest.

“I felt this individual wanted attention from us,” Brattleboro Police Chief Norma Hardy told local leaders after. “Had we accosted him, there would have been a problem and my officers would have not been painted in the best light.”

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Kevin O'Connor

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