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Scaled back bill to codify abortion rights passes N.J. legislative committees

Pro-abortion-rights activists hold signs alongside anti-abortion-rights activists outside the Supreme Court last month.
Saul Loeb
/
AFP/Getty Images
Pro-abortion-rights activists hold signs alongside anti-abortion-rights activists outside the Supreme Court last month.

Committees in both houses of the New Jersey Legislature cleared a bill on Thursday that would codify a person’s right to an abortion into state law. However, the fate of the bill is questionable as it heads to a final vote on Monday, the last full day of the current legislative session.

That’s because the bill that passed out of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and the Assembly Appropriations Committee had been pared back from the original version introduced in the fall of 2020 as the Reproductive Freedom Act. Unlike the original, this bill, now called the Freedom of Reproductive Choice Act, would not require insurance providers to cover the procedure.

As of Thursday evening, the bill still had not been posted publicly and even some committee members said they had not seen it before they were asked to vote on it.

Abortion access is already legal in New Jersey due to a state Supreme Court order. However, as justices in the U.S. Supreme Court mull whether to overturn Roe vs. Wade, many Democratic state leaders, including Gov. Phil Murphy, want to ensure abortion will remain legal in the Garden State.

The new, scaled back bill was introduced on Thursday by retiring Senate majority leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37), outgoing Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-3), and Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-14).

“With a woman’s right to choose under Roe v. Wade under attack in the U.S. Supreme Court, it is critical that we enact legislation rooted in the New Jersey Constitution that clearly and unequivocally protects freedom of reproductive choice, including the right to access contraception, the right to terminate a pregnancy, and the right to carry a pregnancy to term,” Weinberg said in a statement Thursday.

The measure would allow some non-physician health care professionals to provide abortion services. It would also enable the Department of Banking and Insurance to study the need for insurance coverage of abortions and to later write regulations requiring them to do so. Religious employers would have the right to request a religious exemption from providing coverage.

While some lawmakers celebrated the bill’s passage out of committee, others expressed a reluctance to move on the legislation this late in the lame duck session and raised objections about the fact they had not seen the bill, despite being asked to vote on it.

“Just from a process perspective, it's a really bad way to govern,” Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-39). “Something of this magnitude, which is important to a lot of stakeholders, both pro and against, have not had the time to review, to adequately comment.”

The Senate Health Committee and the Assembly Appropriations Committee had scheduled hearings around midday, but changes to the bill’s language delayed the process. Complicating matters in the negotiations was the announcement that Weinberg would resign from the legislature on Friday, a few days before she was set to retire, to take an appointment on the board of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Committee members did not take up the bill until late in the afternoon and early evening.

The bill cleared the Senate panel by a 5-2 vote. Schepisi, who said she supports abortion rights, abstained.

“I thoroughly disagree with the way that this has been done,” Schepisi said.

Similarly, the Assembly Appropriations Committee approved its version of the bill.

Some members who voted to release the bill, like Assemblywoman Gabriela Mosquera and Assemblyman Gary Schaer, said their decision didn’t indicate how they would vote on the Assembly floor on Monday.

Monday’s voting session is the last of the current legislative session before new lawmakers are sworn in Tuesday at noon.