Abortion bill spurs emotional debate
VERGENNES — Activists turned out in force at Monday’s legislative breakfast at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Vergennes, many, but not all, of them to deride a House bill they claimed would expand the use of abortion in Vermont.
But local lawmakers however rejected their claim, saying bill H.57 would simply recognize reproductive choice as a “fundamental freedom” and keep public entities from interfering with, or restricting, women’s existing right in Vermont to end pregnancies.
“The reason we’re (considering) H.57 is because there’s a good chance that on the federal level, it would come before the Supreme Court, and women across the country will lose their sexual reproductive rights,” Rep. Mari Cordes, D-Lincoln, one of several local supporters of the bill.
“What we’re doing is protecting the system we have had in place for the past 46 years in Vermont.”
President Donald Trump, during Tuesday’s state of the union speech, called for federal anti-abortion legislation. He has also sought to fill U.S. Supreme Court vacancies with conservative justices who might be willing to consider more abortion restrictions.
“Let us reaffirm a fundamental truth: All children — born and unborn — are made in the holy image of God,” Trump said.
As the Independent went to press on Wednesday, the House Human Services and Judiciary committees were preparing to hold a public meeting on H.57 at the Statehouse.
Lawmakers were anticipating a big turnout for an issue that continues to spark passionate feelings almost a half century after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.
Both opponents and proponents of the legislation spoke on Monday.
Abortion opponents urged lawmakers to reject H.57, claiming it would result in more women undergoing the procedure. Some opponents said the bill would allow a wider variety of health care workers to perform abortions, including so-called “late-term” abortions.
“Even people on death row are allowed every advantage of appeal and stay of sentence because we don’t want to make a terrible mistake and execute an innocent person,” said Addison resident Charles Kelly. “A viable baby is certainly innocent. H.57 has no checks and balances for preventing infanticide.”
Local lawmakers were clearly frustrated by what they believe has been abortion activists spreading misinformation about H.57.
“It is overwhelmingly supported in the state of Vermont that women have a right to choose their destiny and how they have a family,” said Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes. “The bill does nothing more than codify current federal law. There’s no expansion, no decrease, no difference with the federal law … There’s no tampering with that.”
Lanpher added there have been no late-term abortions performed in Vermont.
Rep. Caleb Elder, D-Starksboro, said he believes future erosion of abortion laws could lead to unsafe medical procedures and greater health risks for women.
“I never wanted to sponsor a bill like this,” Elder said. “It’s a testament to the work of all those spreading fears and lies here today. It’s a testament to your work. We have to pass this bill, and we will.
“I think reproductive rights are a human right and to every woman in the state, I will do everything I can to reassure them that we will codify those rights … But I also want to encourage men to stand for this issue. This is a family issue.”
While supporters of H.57 appear to have more than enough votes to pass the bill in both chambers, opponents vowed to rally in opposition.
Ferrisburgh resident Donna Scott called H.57 “unnecessary, because we already have abortion laws in Vermont, and they are among the most liberal in this whole country.”
She claimed H.57 would pave the way for health care providers other than physicians to perform abortions.
“Any technician or anyone who has even spurious certification can perform these,” she alleged, adding, “If this bill goes through, there are no exceptions or restrictions.”
On the other side, Middlebury resident Joanna Colwell called herself “a voice for the 70 percent of Americans who know that women have the right to decide what happens in our body.”
She told the crowd a woman’s decision about whether to bear children is “an essential human right. It is our inalienable human right to decide what happens in our wombs.”
Colwell argued most women who choose abortion do so because they don’t believe they could take care of another child.
“They know they can’t feed, clothe or educate that child,” she said. “And I think most people in this room are aware that we don’t really do a great job as a society in helping families. We don’t support families who are poor.”
But New Haven resident Jon Christiano said lawmakers who support access to abortions should “be ashamed of themselves.”
“I think abortion, in general, is a disgusting thing,” he said. “I believe women do have control over their bodies, but it begins at conception, not at termination of an innocent child’s life. I believe it’s a child when its heart starts to beat, when its cells divide.”
Lloyd Dike of Bristol called abortion “an expensive and immoral form of birth control.”
“It’s probably one of the reasons Vermont’s population isn’t growing,” he said of abortion. “We’re doing away with our own species here.”
Monkton resident Mike Bushey said men should have more input in the abortion issue.
“Men do have a voice in this, but we don’t have a choice either, because we don’t get a chance to say whether this baby is terminated before it gets a chance to be a baby,” he said.
Rep. Robin Scheu, D-Middlebury, presented information from the Vermont Medical Society indicating 69.3 percent of all abortions performed in the state in 2016 were pregnancies of less than nine weeks; 92 percent of abortions were in the first trimester. Only 1.3 percent occurred in 2016 after 21 weeks, which many consider that point after which most fetuses would be viable.
Vermont has but two heath care providers that will perform an abortion at up to 23 weeks of a pregnancy, according to statistics recited by Scheu.
Middlebury resident Dave Silberman said society should continue to guarantee a woman’s right to choose, while at the same time supporting programs — such as sex education and birth control — that could lessen the need for such a procedure.
“If we are truly interested in reducing the incidents of abortion in this country, let’s focus on what we know will actually work,” Silberman said. “Let’s be as good to the people who live here as we are claiming to be to fetuses.”
If H.57 passes the House — as it is expected to do — it will arrive in the state Senate.
Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Middlebury, pledged to be a “strong, vocal supporter” of the bill. She urged county residents to testify on the bill at legislative public hearings, but also first to not listen to misinformation about the bill.
“I implore you to speak civilly and make sure you understand the facts of the situation before you reach out,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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