Woos & Smith: Vermont must defend and expand abortion rights

This commentary is by Jody Woos of Burlington, a longtime arts advocate and administrator in Vermont who now focuses on organizing for climate justice and reproductive justice; and by Ashley Smith of Burlington, a member of the Champlain Valley Democratic Socialists of America and the Tempest Collective.

Since the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, we have seen systematic attacks on abortion rights and access to full reproductive care across the country. These efforts culminated in the court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision overturning Roe. 

Since that ruling, state governments have moved rapidly to put significant restrictions in place, supported by entrenched, well-organized and well-funded anti-abortion groups. To date, 14 states, most recently Indiana, have imposed bans on abortion; others are expected to follow soon. 

Battle lines have been drawn, and now is the time for reproductive justice activists to fight back. Already, our side has scored a tremendous victory in Kansas, with nearly 60 percent of voters rejecting a constitutional amendment that would have allowed the state to ban abortion. That is a reminder that our side is the overwhelming majority throughout the country.

This November, Vermonters have the opportunity and responsibility to mobilize that majority in our state and vote in huge numbers for the Reproductive Liberty Amendment (Article 22). This amendment to the Vermont Constitution will protect the right of women and people who can become pregnant to choose for themselves whether and when to become a parent, use temporary or permanent birth control, or seek abortion care — without interference from politicians.  

It is not enough for us to pass the Reproductive Liberty Amendment by 51 percent. We need to match if not exceed the 60 percent who turned out in Kansas and send a message to the whole country that we will not go back. 

The stakes could not be higher. As Jia Tolentino argues, the overturning of Roe will not just “take us back” to a time before abortion was legal, but into a new era “of widespread state surveillance and criminalization — of pregnant women, certainly, but also of doctors and pharmacists and clinic staffers and volunteers and friends and family members, of anyone who comes into meaningful contact with a pregnancy that does not end in healthy birth.”

We already have evidence of this in Texas, for example, where perceived ambiguities surrounding miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies are resulting in denial of care, putting people’s lives at risk, even when they are carrying fetuses that all agree are not viable. Passage of the Reproductive Liberty Amendment in Vermont will ensure that such horrors are never visited on women and people who can become pregnant in our state.

We must see the amendment as part of a new movement to win full reproductive justice, which the Black feminist organization Sister Song defines as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”

Our movement must be national because no state, even liberal Vermont, is safe from attacks from the far right’s anti-abortion crusade. The Republican Party is determined to use its strongholds in the so-called Red States to restrict people’s right to travel for reproductive health care to states like Vermont, prosecute doctors and clinics for practicing telemedicine and providing pills for medical abortions across state lines, and even revoke their medical licenses. 

Such attacks are causing nothing less than a public health emergency. In this emergency, we must demand that Vermont immediately enact a “shield law” like the one recently passed in Massachusetts to protect out-of-state patients, ensure doctors’ right to provide medical abortions via telemedicine, and defend the right of pharmacies to dispense abortion pills throughout the country. 

The Reproductive Liberty Amendment and a shield law are central to defend “the right to choose.” But they alone are not enough, since “choice” is meaningless if you don’t have access or cannot afford to pay for abortion and reproductive health care, a reality facing many working-class people, especially working-class people of color, nationally and in Vermont. 

Even before Dobbs, many so-called Red States had few clinics and Medicaid funding was banned. While Medicaid does pay for abortion in Vermont, most working-class people do not qualify for it. That’s why we must fight throughout the country for public funding to make abortion free on demand and without any restrictions. 

No Democrat is demanding this. We, the people, have to demand reproductive justice, and we have to build a mass, independent movement to win it. Can we win it? Yes, we can! 

The U.S. radical women’s movement in the 1960s forced a Nixon-appointed court to legalize abortion through Roe. In the last few years, mass protests and feminist strikes have forced governments to legalize abortion in many countries, most dramatically in Argentina, where abortion is now legal and paid for by national health insurance. 

Here in Vermont, we can lay the foundations for such a movement by uniting progressive institutions, unions, and social justice organizations to campaign for the passage of the Reproductive Liberty Amendment (Article 22) by an overwhelming majority and demand the immediate passage of a shield law. By winning such a victory, we can build momentum in Vermont and across the country to win reproductive health care.

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