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Gov. Phil Murphy. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Murphy wants Reproductive Freedom Act passed by June 30

Resistance in legislature persists as lawmakers question need

By Nikita Biryukov, May 20 2021 12:31 pm

Gov. Phil Murphy called on New Jersey’s legislators to pass a stalled bill codifying the state’s abortion protections before the end of next month in his latest bid to get the Reproductive Freedom Act moving again.

“The time to pass the Reproductive Freedom Act is now,” he said Thursday. “And I look forward to working with leadership and members of both chambers to ensure this bill gets a hearing and that it gets a vote as soon as it can, with a strong preference by June 30th before the legislature goes on budget break.”

On top of enshrining abortion protections in state law, the bill would bar insurance cost-sharing for abortion procedures, improve access to contraceptives and eliminate existing abortion restrictions.

Murphy’s call is meant to pressure legislative leaders, who have so far kept the bill in a sort of limbo. They plan to give the bill a vote during the lame duck session later this year, when members have less reason to be concerned over political fallout related to an abortion vote. The bill hasn’t seen any movement since it was introduced last October.

But pro-choice activists see a need for action now, their concern fueled by the U.S. Supreme Court accepting a case over abortion restrictions in Mississippi that advocates fear could imperil Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationally.

“I’ve been in this fight for so long, and every time I think you can relax and it’s all been taken care of, this Supreme Court, appointed by a prior president, comes to rear its head,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck), who is sponsoring the bill in her chamber.

The standoff over the Reproductive Freedom Act comes down to a matter of timing. Though some Democratic lawmakers would prefer to avoid voting on the bill so close to an election, there are likely enough votes in both chambers to get the bill to Murphy’s desk.

But some lawmakers have questioned whether there is a pressing need to act now. The Supreme Court won’t hear the Mississippi case until its next session, which begins in October, and a ruling likely won’t be issued until spring or summer of 2022, months after the end of lame duck.

The bill’s proponents say it’s not just a matter of codifying abortion protections. They want to expand access and eliminate existing barriers, and they want it done with some urgency.

“We don’t need to pass the Reproductive Freedom Act just because the Supreme Court is racing to overturn Roe v. Wade,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood), the bill’s prime Assembly sponsor. “In itself, we need to pass RFA because Roe has never been enough, as you heard. A right is not a right if you cannot access it.”

Murphy, Weinberg, Vainieri Huttle, First Lady Tammy Murphy and Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Alexis McGill Johnson made their pitch for the bill’s quick movement during a virtual roundtable Thursday morning.

But it’s not clear the new push will do much to change the calculus employed by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge), who would have to sign off before the bill gets a vote.

“New Jersey has an opportunity that many organizers across the country can only dream about: the chance to pass proactive legislation,” McGill Johnson said. “And when you get this bill over the finish line, you won’t just be improving the lives of millions of New Jersey residents. You have the power to export imagination to organizers across the country to states that are hostile to reproductive freedom.”

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