Politics

As US Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade, abortion remains protected in Vermont

People pose for a photo during a reproductive rights rally in front of the Statehouse in Montpelier on May 14. Photo by Natalie Williams/VTDigger

Updated at 7:42 p.m.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday struck down the federal right to abortion by overturning its landmark Roe v. Wade decision, ending nationwide protections that have stood for nearly 50 years.

In Vermont, where abortion will remain legal, response to the decision from health care providers and politicians was swift and furious. Abortion-rights groups prepared for protests Friday afternoon and evening in Bennington, Brattleboro, Burlington, Montpelier and Rutland. 

The high court’s 6-3 ruling in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization upholds a Mississippi law limiting access to abortions to 15 weeks gestation, before fetal viability. The Supreme Court’s 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision — which was also overturned Friday — established the viability test.

Mississippi’s law, signed in 2018, was crafted specifically to challenge Roe and Casey precedent, with the hope of overturning the landmark decisions for reproductive health care access.

Friday’s decision puts the question of abortion access and restrictions to state governments. It opens the door for states to ban the procedure outright or strictly limit it, no matter the gestational age of the fetus — steps that roughly half of them are expected to take, many of them immediately

In Vermont, abortion is set to remain legal. State lawmakers in 2019 approved by wide margins H.57, which guaranteed the right to abortion in the state, no matter the U.S. Supreme Court’s future actions. 

The state is also poised to become the first in the country to enshrine abortion rights in its constitution. Following final legislative approval this spring, the proposed constitutional amendment, Proposal 5, is slated to appear on general election ballots in November. 

Vermont medical providers and activists have been preparing for an expected influx of out-of-state patients since well before the Supreme Court’s draft decision was leaked in early May.

In a statement issued Friday, shortly after the ruling was released, Planned Parenthood Vermont Action Fund vice president of public affairs Lucy Leriche called it “a dark day for our country.” 

By overturning Roe, she said, the court “has now officially given politicians permission to control what we do with our bodies, deciding that we can no longer be trusted to determine the course for our own lives. This dangerous and chilling decision will have devastating consequences across the country, forcing people to travel hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles for care or remain pregnant.”

[Read more: Vermonters rally throughout the state as Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade]

Kimberly Sampson, an OBGYN with Dartmouth’s Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, told VTDigger on Friday that, “Politics shouldn't enter my exam room, and personal opinion shouldn't enter my exam room. It should be between myself and my patient.” 

Politics and medicine, she continued, are two “different worlds, and they should not necessarily be colliding in the way that they are.”

“What we do for a living is not black and white. It is not clear cut,” she said. “This is beyond someone's personal opinion. This is individual lives, and every single one of my patients is an individual and they should be treated as such.”

A coalition of health care organizations in Vermont issued a joint statement Friday denouncing the decision. The group included the Vermont Medical Society, the University of Vermont Health Network, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont and other organizations representing medical providers and patients. 

“Every person should have the right to control their own health care decisions, including the right to abortion care,” they wrote. “As health care organizations, we strongly believe that abortion services should be treated like any other health care service. The consequences of overturning Roe v. Wade will block millions of people from the health care they need, especially those who have less ability to take time from work or pay the expenses to travel.  

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, speaks to several hundred people gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Burlington after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade abortion decision on Friday, June 24. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Vermont officials react

Statewide elected officials in Vermont slammed the court’s decision.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told VTDigger Friday afternoon that he was so angry that he was pacing in his office. He railed against the “hypocrisy” of Supreme Court members who on Thursday struck down a New York state law restricting the concealed carry of firearms, deeming it constitutional overreach, and then opened the doors to allow states to restrict abortion access.

He also deemed hypocritical his Senate Republican colleagues who have worked to confirm a conservative, anti-abortion majority Supreme Court, while opposing policy proposals like expanding health care access or free lunch for children.

As for the state legislatures voting to roll back abortion access, Leahy said they’re sending the message to people who can get pregnant, “We will tell you what you do with your bodies.”

“My argument is it's not a question of whether you're for abortion or against abortion,” Leahy continued. “The fact is, it has to be a woman's choice.”

Though the court’s ruling was widely expected, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said he was still taken aback when he got the call Friday that Roe had fallen.

“Even though we knew it was coming from the leaked draft, it's still shocking that the Supreme Court would literally take away a right that had been enshrined as a constitutional right, since Roe v. Wade,” he told VTDigger in an interview Friday. “And it's extraordinarily dangerous to women and extraordinarily divisive for our country, and in my view, an extraordinarily weighted political decision by the Supreme Court.”

In a written statement Friday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said the court had made “the outrageous and reactionary assertion that women in our country should not be able to control their own bodies.”

All three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation have called to suspend the Senate’s parliamentary filibuster rules in order to pass legislation codifying a federal right to abortion. Sanders repeated that demand Friday, saying in the statement that the court’s decision “cannot be allowed to stand.”

“If Republicans can end the filibuster to install right wing judges to overturn Roe v. Wade, Democrats can and must end the filibuster, codify Roe v. Wade, and make abortion legal and safe,” he said. “That is exactly what we must do NOW.”

Whether that will actually happen, though, is another question, Welch said.

“Realistically, with the current composition of the Senate, I'm pessimistic,” Welch said. “But we're very close and we can't give up that fight. I mean, we did pass it in the House. And if we get a couple more senators who are willing to take the action required, we would be able to pass it in the Senate.”

A recent procedural vote to move forward the Women’s Health Protection Act in the Senate failed by a 49-51 vote in May.

Former U.S. Attorney Christina Nolan, a Republican who, like Welch, is running to replace Leahy in the Senate, has said she supports federal access to abortion. In a written statement Friday, she said that she “will take action to protect the right to abortion that was established in Roe v. Wade” should she prevail in November.

“In the wake of this decision, I fear that women’s health will take a backseat to extreme reactions and partisan anger. As a leader, I will put women’s health first and work to find a federal legislative solution,” she said.

Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, said in a written statement that he was “deeply disappointed” in the court’s ruling. But he said that Vermont had “prepared for this unfortunate outcome” by codifying abortion rights in state law. He repeated his support for Vermont’s proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing abortion rights and called on Congress to pass a federal law doing the same.

House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, called Friday “a truly sad day in our nation’s history.” Krowinski, who previously worked for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said the decision was “unacceptable and unconscionable” and would set back reproductive rights by 50 years. 

Vermont anti-abortion activists, such as Mary Beerworth, head of Vermont Right to Life, are using the decision as a chance to advocate against passing Proposal 5 in November. She called the proposed constitutional amendment “so broad and so dangerous” and unnecessary, given current law in Vermont.

Planned Parenthood Vermont Action Fund vice president of public affairs Lucy Leriche, right, called it “a dark day for our country." File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

‘It’s open season’

Friday’s decision also calls into question the future of other major Supreme Court precedent-setting cases, such as those that established the rights to gay marriage and contraception. In a concurring opinion on Friday, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said that he and his colleagues “should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents.”

Leriche warned during a Friday press conference that striking down Roe “is just the first step.”

“We can see the Supreme Court has other populations, other groups in their crosshairs,” she said. “And this is just the beginning of what I predict will be many violations of human rights in the coming years.”

Welch said the Dobbs ruling launches an “open season for those justices to start rolling back other rights.” Social issues are called into question, but also citizens’ right to privacy, he said. Roe was decided on the basis of citizens’ privacy from the government.

“You've got an activist court that is giving itself license to put in jeopardy significant rights that will affect all Americans. This is extremely divisive,” Welch said. “The importance of precedent is that it gives people and institutions and our democracy some sense of stability… That language creates seismic instability.”

‘The fundamental right’

In 2019, Democratic majorities in the Vermont House and Senate approved by wide margins H.57, which guaranteed the right to abortion in the state. The bill codified in statute longstanding case law. 

"The State of Vermont recognizes the fundamental right of every individual who becomes pregnant to choose to carry a pregnancy to term, to give birth to a child, or to have an abortion,” the law read

In June 2019, Scott signed H.57, a law now known as the Freedom of Choice Act. 

“This legislation affirms what is already allowable in Vermont — protecting reproductive rights and ensuring those decisions remain between a woman and her health care provider,” the governor wrote upon signing the bill.

During the same legislative session, lawmakers began working on a more lasting approach to protect abortion rights in the state. That year, the Vermont House and Senate signed off on Proposal 5, an amendment to the Vermont Constitution to guarantee sexual and reproductive freedoms. This February, the Vermont House gave it final legislative approval, ensuring that the question would appear on the general election ballot this November. 

Should a majority of voters support the measure, Vermont would become the first state to make such an amendment part of its state constitution.

The amendment would read, “That an individual’s right to personal reproductive autonomy is central to the liberty and dignity to determine one’s own life course and shall not be denied or infringed unless justified by a compelling State interest achieved by the least restrictive means.”

Vermont’s abortion protections long predate the Freedom of Choice Act and Proposal 5. In 1972, even before Roe v. Wade was decided, the Vermont Supreme Court “affirmed the right of a woman to abort,” extending the practice beyond those whose pregnancies endangered their lives.

Across the country, every state has varying degrees of abortion protections. Vermont is one of only four states and the District of Columbia that protects the right to abortion throughout pregnancy. Many states, including New Hampshire, have no explicit protections or bans. 

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights advocacy group, 26 states are poised to outright ban or severely restrict abortion access once federal protections dissolve.

‘Honestly, nobody knows’

Leriche, of Planned Parenthood Vermont Action Fund, told VTDigger last month that Vermont’s clinics are anticipating an influx of out-of-state patients who cannot access abortions at home. One of the state’s six Planned Parenthood clinics that perform abortions has since closed.

Vermont is located in a “whole cluster of states where abortion remains safe and legal,” Leriche said, so she anticipates no more than a 10% increase in patients — a rise that she believes Vermont has the capacity to accommodate.

But on Friday, Leriche told reporters, “honestly, nobody knows.”

“You know, we can model all day long, but it's the reality that will show us what in fact is going to happen,” Leriche said.

Catherine Coteus, a board member of the nonprofit Vermont Access to Reproductive Freedom, told VTDigger Friday that without the infrastructure to serve Vermont patients, as well as out-of-staters seeking abortions, appointment slots could fill, and pregnant people could be forced to wait until further into their pregnancy to receive an abortion.

“That makes local access harder. That means that Vermonters in their first trimester might end up waiting ‘til their second trimester. And as someone who's currently in her second trimester, that is a long row to hoe when you don't want to be pregnant,” Coteus said.

Not only can pregnancy be physically arduous — it can be deadly, particularly for people of color. The United States already has a high maternal mortality rate compared to other wealthy nations. Black Americans are three-times more likely than their white counterparts to die of maternal complications, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Clara Keegan, a family doctor with the University of Vermont Medical Center, told VTDigger that, medically, “pregnancy is really one of the most dangerous things that a person can go through.”

“There are a lot of medical complications that can develop. Labor and delivery are really challenging, even in the best of circumstances. Things can go wrong. It can be scary and traumatic for people,” Keegan said.

And sometimes the fetus isn’t healthy. Keegan said she has watched patients “agonize” over the decision of whether to end a pregnancy.

“It's very infuriating to hear government officials make a decision without understanding the complexities of the decisions that people are making every day,” she said.

Abortions were performed in the United States before Roe was first decided in 1973. But many were unsafe. Keegan said the advent of medication abortion is a positive development, hopefully deterring pregnant people from attempting to perform their own abortions dangerously.

But medication abortions aren’t completely without risk, especially further into a pregnancy. Keegan said she’s concerned that, should a medication abortion be unsuccessful or lead to hemorrhaging, the Supreme Court’s decision and state-level restrictions chill patients from getting medical help if they need it, afraid of facing prosecution.

“It creates another barrier for good communication with patients. People won't know whom they can trust,” Keegan said.

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Sarah Mearhoff

About Sarah

Sarah Mearhoff is one of VTDigger's political reporters, covering the Vermont statehouse, executive branch and congressional delegation. Prior to joining Digger, she covered Minnesota and South Dakota state politics for Forum Communications' newspapers across the Upper Midwest for three years. She has also covered politics in Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, she is a proud alumna of the Pennsylvania State University where she studied journalism.

Email: [email protected]

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