This commentary is by Nancy Welch, professor emerita of English at the University of Vermont and a member of Upper Valley for Abortion Rights. Since retiring from UVM in May, she has been living in Hanover, New Hampshire, after living in Burlington and South Burlington for 27 years.
In the weeks since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe, bleak headlines have dominated the national news: an Indiana doctor under investigation for providing an abortion to a 10-year-old rape victim from neighboring Ohio; patients instructed by lawsuit-wary hospitals to manage their miscarriages at home; abortion access funds from Texas to Illinois suspending their aid amidst threats of prosecution.
In this hellscape for the autonomy and health of women, girls, and transgender and nonbinary people, Vermont voters have a chance in November to make headlines that bring hope: by voting to amend the state constitution to safeguard reproductive rights.
The Vermont Reproductive Liberty Amendment (previously known as Prop 5) would expand the state’s constitution to protect reproductive rights, including the rights to choose or refuse abortion, to choose or refuse sterilization, and to choose or refuse birth control.
If passed, this amendment will buffer Vermont from the chaos of antiabortion organizations and lobbyists who aim for abortion bans in every state — and who will be emboldened if this amendment goes down to defeat. Yes, abortion, both surgical and medical, is currently legal in Vermont, but we face our rights being up for grabs in every legislative session.
In the state shamefully known as the birthplace of the U.S. eugenics movement, the Vermont Reproductive Liberty Amendment is further important to protect vulnerable communities from forced or coerced sterilization. Racist state-sanctioned sterilization programs are not a thing of the past.
Until California banned the practice in 2014, the California prison system routinely sterilized Black and Latina inmates without their knowledge and consent. Just this past May, an ICE immigration detention camp in Georgia was shuttered after whistleblowers reported the appalling abuse of nonconsensual hysterectomies. A 2022 survey by the National Women’s Law Center, with assistance from the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network, reported that forced sterilization is legal in 32 states — including Vermont.
Legal abortion in Vermont is thus insufficient to ensure bodily autonomy for any person who can become pregnant. We need the Vermont Reproductive Liberty Amendment to set ourselves on the path for full reproductive justice, defined by the African American women’s collective SisterSong as the right not to bear a child, the right to bear a child, and the right to raise children in safe and supportive environments.
To secure full reproductive justice, we need more than a constitutional amendment.
We need new laws to protect from prosecution and lawsuits providers and abortion access volunteers when they assist a pregnant person from an abortion-ban state.
We need universal health care coverage so the choice to have an abortion does not depend on one’s bank account and insurance.
Across all 50 states, we need the kind of movement that in Argentina in 2020 won the right to abortion fully integrated into and paid for by the national health care system.
We have much work ahead, including organizing people around the state and across the country under a banner of hope. The Reproductive Liberty Amendment gives us a place to start.