Home>Feature>SCOTUS case on Mississippi abortion restrictions hasn’t gotten the Reproductive Freedom Act moving

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

SCOTUS case on Mississippi abortion restrictions hasn’t gotten the Reproductive Freedom Act moving

Democratic lawmakers, concerned over backlash from pro-life voters in low turnout race, still angling to move bill during lame duck

By Nikita Biryukov, May 19 2021 5:08 pm

News of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to take up a case concerning abortion restrictions in New Jersey have redoubled activists’ efforts to get the Reproductive Freedom Act moving, but sentiment in the legislature is unchanged, sources in the legislature told the New Jersey Globe.

As before, the bill is likely to languish until this year’s lame duck session.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear a case over a Mississippi law that would bar abortions past the 15th week of pregnancy. That case, which won’t be tried until the court begins its new session in October, has inflamed concerns among advocates over the fate of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that legalized abortion protections nationwide.

Some legislators view the Reproductive Freedom Act, which would codify abortion protections in state law, remove financial barriers to the procedure and improve access to contraceptives, as unnecessary.

While there are no abortion protections in the state code, New Jersey Supreme Court precedent guarantees abortion’s legality, though that decision cites Roe and advocates fear change at the national level could impact the state ruling.

“I have a question as to why anybody thinks this is so debatable in this state of New Jersey,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck), the bill’s sponsor. “I think that the overwhelming members of the constituency that we all represent believe in it, and I would hope and will continue advocating to get this bill passed as soon as possible.”

A March poll conducted by the National Institute for Reproductive Health, a pro-choice group, found overwhelming support for abortion protections in New Jersey, but as is usual, concerns over the bill’s movement are political.

Democratic lawmakers and operatives fear energizing the swath of New Jerseyans opposed to abortion as they and Gov. Phil Murphy, who supports the bill, prepare for re-election races.

Though abortion opponents account for, at best, a sizeable minority of the state’s voters, they fear energizing them ahead of an election where turnout is unlikely to rise above 50% could imperil some Democratic lawmakers’ chances at re-election.

“That’s kind of the calculus. You don’t mess with it if you don’t have to,” said a Democratic operative afforded anonymity to discuss the politics of abortion candidly. “It’s just kicking a hornet’s nest.”

The fear over pro-life backlash isn’t centered around the state’s competitive districts, even if lawmakers representing swing districts, like State Sen. Dawn Addiego (D-Evesham) and Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Northfield), a cosponsor of the Reproductive Freedom Act, would likely prefer to avoid such a vote in an election year. It should be noted Atlantic County Commissioner Caren Fitzpatrick, Mazzeo’s running mate, has not shied away from pro-choice advocacy.

The bill won’t see a vote unless Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) decide to give it one, and the two aren’t likely to break with political pragmatism months out from election day, even if abortion isn’t a kill shot for swing-district Democrats.

“The weird part is that this really isn’t a competitive district-non-competitive district thing. It’s honestly like an Irish Caucus thing,” the operative said. “The Joe Egans and Wayne DeAngelos of the world are the ones who are particularly forceful on this. They’re just like ‘why are you making me take this vote.’”

Those dynamics came to a head over a 2016 resolution celebrating the anniversary of Roe. The non-binding resolution faced opposition during a Democratic Assembly caucus and had to be amended before passing both chambers months later.

“It’s funny because I actually had ‘celebration’ and I had to change the word to ‘commemoration,’” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood), who sponsored the resolution and is a prime sponsor of the Reproductive Freedom Act in her chamber. “Celebration was a little too, I guess, celebratory.”

To be clear, it’s more than likely there are enough votes to pass the Reproductive Freedom Act, but some legislators don’t see the movement in the U.S. Supreme Court as a threat to New Jersey’s protections.

Even with a 6-3 conservative majority on the court, the expectation is a ruling would, at worst, allow states to impose their own restrictions on abortion. That’s not likely to happen in solidly Democratic New Jersey.

There’s also the question of timing. The Supreme Court like won’t issue a ruling on the case until spring or summer of 2022. That means a lame duck vote on the Reproductive Freedom Act would still arrive before any new federal restrictions, though activists point to the bill’s other provisions to demonstrate the need for quick action.

“While I appreciate that the Supreme Court making the decision on Monday to take up this case means it’s still several months out, there are people right now in New Jersey who can’t access care because of what’s happening on the ground,” said Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey vice president of public affairs Kaitlyn Wojtowicz.

She pointed to provisions allowing for lengthier birth control prescriptions and prohibitions on insurance cost-sharing for abortions.

Those issues aren’t new, nor have they prompted swift action from the legislature in years past. That’s not likely to change unless legislators feel pressured to act, and it’s not clear that advocacy will be enough to get the bill moving.

“As in most things when it comes to stuff like this, there needs to be a deadline or an urgency or something that otherwise mandates that this issue is front and center or it just won’t be,” the operative said.

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