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Governor signs reproductive protection bills

MONTPELIER — Against a national backdrop of ever-tightening restrictions on abortions and gender-affirming care, Gov. Phil Scott on Wednesday signed two high-profile “omnibus” bills that seek to expand protections for and access to reproductive care in Vermont.

“Today, we reaffirm once again that Vermont stands on the side of privacy, personal autonomy and reproductive liberty, and that providers are free to practice without fear,” the Republican governor said in a press release announcing his signatures Wednesday.

When the U.S. Supreme Court last summer struck down Roe v. Wade case precedent, thereby ending the federal right to an abortion, dozens of states immediately outlawed or severely restricted access to the procedure. Meanwhile, numerous state legislatures have also taken aim at transgender rights, passing laws regulating gender-affirming care for patients who are transitioning, particularly minors.

In a patchwork nation of disparate laws regarding reproductive health care, Vermont lawmakers set out to make the state a refuge for these procedures — not just for residents, but out-of-state patients who travel to receive the procedures, as well.

H.89 is the Legislature’s so-called shield law, protecting Vermont doctors from being forced to cooperate with out-of-state investigators, should they seek to prosecute a patient who traveled to Vermont to obtain care from a state where abortion or gender-affirming care is outlawed.

Lawmakers were clear from the start: Vermont can only shield doctors and patients so long as they remain in state lines. But H.89 does offer out-of-state patients some level of protection, by essentially kneecapping any investigations.

The Senate’s companion bill, S.37, offers doctors professional protections for providing reproductive care in Vermont, such as barring medical malpractice insurance companies from hiking rates on providers, or preventing providers from having their medical licenses revoked.

The legislation also includes a section taking aim at so-called crisis pregnancy centers, which are nonmedical facilities that advertise themselves for pregnant patients, offering some basic obstetrics — such as pregnancy tests and ultrasounds — but actively seek to dissuade patients from obtaining abortions. Critics have long called these facilities’ advertising strategies misleading, and S.37 makes them subject to Vermont’s existing false and misleading advertising statutes.

Collectively, H.89 and S.37 go a step further than Article 22, an amendment to the state constitution guaranteeing “reproductive liberty” that passed with majority support in every Vermont city and town last fall.

Such laws are among the first in the nation. In the words of David Cohen, a Drexel University law school professor, they represent an advent of the post-Roe “interjurisdictional abortion wars.”

Both bills passed overwhelmingly in the Vermont House and Senate. They were widely supported by prominent Vermont medical organizations and institutions, as well as reproductive care and LGBTQ+ advocacy groups such as Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and OutRight Vermont. Anti-abortion rights groups such as Vermont Family Alliance objected to the legislation.

While the two bills saw broad support among legislators, there was a last-minute hiccup: When news broke that a federal judge in Texas ruled that Food and Drug Administration approval of mifepristone, a widely used abortion medication, should be revoked, lawmakers scurried to add in additional, specific protections for abortions carried out by medicine. Medication is the most commonly used method for abortion nationwide and in Vermont.

KEEP AN EYE ON THESE

With the House and Senate still at loggerheads over how to pay for it, a push by Democrats to inject a historic infusion of cash into Vermont’s ailing childcare system is at risk of collapsing. 

Lawmakers have been negotiating behind the scenes for weeks over how to finance S.56, a bill that would pump about $120 million a year into the state’s childcare subsidy program. But House and Senate negotiators appear no closer to a deal as Friday, their planned adjournment date, creeps ever closer.

“We have hit an impasse on funding,” Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden Central, conceded Tuesday evening. 

— Lola Duffort

The Vermont Senate this week voted to override Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of S.5, a bill that would set up, but not implement, a clean heat standard. 

The body needed a two-thirds majority to overcome Scott’s veto, and senators cleared that threshold with a 20-10 vote Tuesday. The measure now returns to the House, which is scheduled to hold its own override vote Thursday. If Democratic leaders of the House are also able to summon a two-thirds majority, the bill would become law over the Republican governor’s objections. 

Conor Kennedy, chief of staff to House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, said he’s confident the House also has the votes to override Scott’s veto.

— Emma Cotton

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