MONTPELIER — The unrestricted right of Vermont’s women to access abortion services was secured Monday evening with the stroke of Gov. Phil Scott’s pen.
“Currently, Vermont does not restrict the right to abortion,” the bill reads. “The General Assembly intends this act to safeguard the existing rights to access reproductive health services in Vermont by ensuring those rights are not denied, restricted or infringed by a government entity. ... 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.”
“Like many Vermonters, I have consistently supported a woman’s right to choose, which is why today I signed H.57 into law,” Scott said in a statement. “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.”
“Given what’s happening at a national level, I think there’s a lot of astonishment and outrage at the lengths the opposition will go to take away rights of people who can get pregnant,” said Lucy Leriche, vice president of public policy for Planned Parenthood in Vermont. “What we have seen is an incredible outpouring of support from advocacy organizations, Vermonters and the Legislature.”
The Vermont Right to Life Committee released a statement accusing Scott of harming Vermont’s women and girls by signing the “anti-life” bill.
“H.57 goes beyond Roe v. Wade and may well be the most radical anti-life law in the nation,” Sharon Toborg, policy analyst for Vermont Right to Life, said in the statement.
Mary Beerworth, executive director of the Vermont Right to Life committee, maintained the bill would enable abortion at any stage in a pregnancy. Sen. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland said he shared those concerns when he voted against H.57.
“There is no provision for restricting the time limit on abortion — the way it’s written, a woman could be in her ninth month, she could still have an abortion,” Collamore said.
But Leriche said the frequency of late-term abortions claimed by some was misinformation.
“Terminations late in pregnancy are very rare, less than 1% — pregnancies that are wanted and are tragic anomalies,” Leriche said.
According to the Vermont Medical Society, in 2016, 98.9% of abortions happened at 20 weeks of gestation or earlier, and almost 70% of those terminations were at less than nine weeks. Terminations 21 weeks or later were listed as making up 1% of terminations.
“’Late-term’ abortion is a social construct introduced to create an image of an elective abortion that happens closer to 8-9 months, which does not happen and is not a term that is used medically,” according to a statement released by the Vermont Medical Society. “There are no abortion services available for patients seeking termination past 22 weeks in Vermont, except in very rare cases where there are significant threats to maternal or fetal health.”
Beerworth warned that clinics allowed to operate “unregulated” opens the door for illegal clinics to open. She cited the case of Kermit Gosnell, who operated an illegal practice in Philadelphia and was charged with eight counts of murder after his practice was raided in 2010.
“Kermit Gosnell ran a criminal enterprise, not a health care facility,” Leriche said. “The notion that these criminals are going to come in and set up shop here in Vermont, no regulations would allow for that to happen. ... Every health care provider has a medical license. This allegation that abortion health care centers aren’t regulated is false.
Abortion is health care, Leriche said, and remains one of the safest health care procedures that exist conducted by a trained medical professional, with less than 1% resulting in complications.
Collamore said he was opposed to the lack of parental consent required for someone underage to access abortion care.
“A girl could be as young as 13 or 14 years old ... and there’s no parental notification,” Collamore said.
Leriche said requiring parental consent could put the life of the pregnant person in danger if they refused to allow the termination and forced the child to carry the pregnancy to term.
“We support, very strongly, this idea that if this person is old enough to get pregnant, they’re old enough to decide what they want to do with their body,” Leriche said.
“Parents need to find out what’s happening with their daughter,” Beerworth said. “There is never a moment when a woman is under so much pressure.”
But rather than seeking abortion, Beerworth said more efforts ought to be allocated to aiding a pregnant person in the event of an unplanned pregnancy.
“Why aren’t colleges making it easier for women to have children? We stepped into this discussion and felt this was an opportunity to improve the services to women,” Beerworth said.
An opinion, Leriche said, that dissolved the notion of choice.
“(It) fundamentally disregards what the patient wants for herself and whether she wants to be pregnant and wants to be a parent,” Leriche said.
Contrary to Beerworth’s claims that abortion rates are increasing, Vermont Department of Health Communications Officer Ben Truman confirmed that 1,298 abortions were performed in the state in 2016, falling to 1,203 in 2017.
If nothing else, Beerworth said the law would only serve to strengthen a “business” that she alleged financially profited from providing abortion care and funneled money to the state government.
“We refer to them as the fourth branch of government in Vermont,” Beerworth said. “They have an incredible ability to affect an election. ... I think (Scott) is afraid to go against them.”
Leriche called the notion of abortion care providers making a profit “offensive.”
“We have a 501c4 and an independent expenditure pack,” Leriche said. “... Abortion services are probably one of the smallest pieces of what we do. Six percent of our patients come for abortion. The vast majority are for contraception services.”
In its statement, the Vermont Medical Society thanked Scott signing the bill into law.
“We thank the thousands of Vermonters who spoke out in support of H.57, the countless individuals who came forward to share their personal stories, all of the legislators who worked to see this critical legislation through, and Gov. Scott for signing it into law,” said James Duff Lyall, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont. “Thanks to them, the people of this state will continue to have the freedom to define their own path without government interference or intrusion into their private decisions.”
Going forward, Jessa Barnard, executive director of the Vermont Medical Society, said the proposed restriction of Title X funding — federal grant money for reproductive health care facilities — is being fought by a coalition of states around the nation in an effort to keep affordable health care available.
“Title X federal funding for contraceptive care and screenings does not fund abortions,” Barnard said. “It could affect Vermont reproductive services for STI screenings, breast cancer screenings, cervical cancer screenings.”