WINOOSKI — The two Democrats vying to be Vermont’s next attorney general say that, if elected, they’ll aim to bolster protections for people seeking and providing abortions in the state, now that the U.S. Supreme Court has decided to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Charity Clark and Rory Thibault, who are squaring off in the primary election Aug. 9, said Monday they believe it’s critical Vermonters pass Proposal 5 this fall, which would amend the state’s constitution to guarantee sexual and reproductive freedoms.
But the candidates also said they would work with Vermont lawmakers to take additional steps, using existing and possibly new legislation, to make Vermont a “safe harbor” for people who choose to get an abortion — whether or not those people live in the state.
“There’s more we can do to protect this fundamental value in Vermont,” Clark, who was former Attorney General TJ Donovan’s chief of staff, said at a press conference Monday in Winooski. “Without Roe, we need to create an infrastructure of support for people deprived of the human right to control their own bodies.”
Both candidates said the state should ensure Vermont medical providers who perform abortion care are protected from prosecution by officials in other states where there are, or are set to be, new restrictions on abortion access. In Vermont, providers and activists have been preparing for an expected influx of out-of-state patients since well before the Supreme Court’s draft decision on Roe v. Wade was leaked in early May.
Clark called specifically for eliminating the ability of a person from any other state to compel a person’s testimony in Vermont in any criminal or civil action against abortion seekers or providers.
She also said there’s a need to change existing state policy, or pass new legislation, to let Vermont law enforcement agencies decline to cooperate with out-of-state investigations related to abortion care.
“We really can't have a situation where we violate our own principles in support of another state's demand,” Thibault, who is the Washington County state’s attorney, said in an interview Monday.
Across Lake Champlain, lawmakers in New York are weighing similar “safe harbor” policies, including a proposal to establish an abortion access fund to which taxpayers could contribute, The New York Times reported.
In response to a reporter’s question Monday, Clark said she would support creating such a fund in Vermont, noting that her campaign welcomes “any ideas.”
But she said New York is probably more likely than Vermont to be a destination for people seeking out-of-state abortions, given the Empire State’s location and the fact that it has multiple, far larger transportation hubs than Vermont does.
Both candidates said they want to make it easier for Vermonters to know where to buy abortion medication in the state, perhaps by creating a certified list of pharmacies that sell the drugs that have been in the spotlight since the high court’s ruling on Friday.
Thibault said he would support creating a Vermont-based supply of abortion medication in the event that Congress, which has broad authority over interstate commerce, were to attempt to bar those drugs from entering states such as Vermont.
Clark also said she would institute a “no-tolerance policy” in the Attorney General’s Office for deception and misinformation about abortion medicine and access to providers, using her power to enforce consumer protection laws.
Abortion-related content from “less reliable sources” more than doubled on Facebook and Twitter in the week following the leak of the high court’s decision, Fast Company reported last week. Similarly, the magazine wrote, abortion providers and advocates have since reported an increase in online disinformation about abortion legislation.
Thibault said he would work with the Legislature to develop protections for Vermonters who are out of state — whether for travel, education or work — but need to obtain health care such as an abortion while in a jurisdiction with more restrictive laws.
For instance, he said Vermont could develop a program that would allow a Vermonter’s health insurance to cover the costs of transportation either back home, or to another state close by where it would be safer or easier for them to get an abortion.
A number of major U.S. companies have said they will reimburse transportation costs for employees who travel to get an abortion.
“We’ll refer somebody out of state, or to a specialist out of network, because it's unavailable in the area in which they find themselves. And it seems to me that we can adapt that modality to protect people,” Thibault said.
He said this thinking is similar to that outlined in a statement Friday by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, which said the Pentagon plans to ensure that members of the military, their families and civilian employees will be able to access reproductive health care regardless of where they are stationed in the country.
Still, how the Pentagon will do that remains unclear, Politico has reported.
Clark and Thibault are vying to replace Donovan, who left office on June 20 for a job at the online gaming company Roblox.
After the high court’s decision Friday, Acting Attorney General Joshua Diamond issued a statement “reaffirming the office’s commitment to supporting and expanding access to abortion care.”
“The Office will explore every opportunity to join multistate actions, amicus briefs, and lawsuits while also supporting the passage of Vermont’s Reproductive Liberty Amendment,” the statement said.
Gov. Phil Scott last week appointed Susanne Young, a former deputy attorney general and secretary of administration, to serve in the office starting July 5 until a new attorney general is sworn in next January.
A spokesperson for the office did not return a request Monday for more information.
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