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Vermont Senate Gives Initial Approval To Constitutional Protection Of Reproductive Rights

Vermont Statehouse Spring 2017
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Vermont Statehouse (file photo)

The Vermont Senate has given preliminary approval to a state constitutional amendment intended to assure women’s reproductive rights cannot be rescinded.
On April 4, the Vermont Senate took up a measure titled ‘The Right to Personal Reproductive Liberty’.  At the beginning of the debate, Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman instructed the chamber to listen to the clerk’s reading of the proposed amendment to the state constitution.  “We now have for action a proposal of amendment to the Vermont Constitution. Please listen to the reading of Proposal 5.”
Sneate Clerk: “This proposal would amend the Constitution of the State of Vermont to ensure that every Vermonter is afforded personal reproductive liberty. Enshrining this right in the Constitution is critical to ensuring equal protection and treatment under the law.”

The Senate’s Health and Welfare Committee reported on its consideration of the proposal. Democratic Chair Ginny Lyons said the Committee concluded that the amendment is necessary because people need to be able to make their own choices.   “It’s time to put the question to the voters in this state. The lack of a definitive enumeration of reproductive liberty in Vermont’s Constitution, the threat of Roe versus Wade being overturned by a very conservative U.S. Supreme Court and the cloud of a multistate initiative to pass restrictive punitive laws that all build a strong case for Prop 5 to go to the voters.”

Following more than an hour of debate, senators approved the measure on a 28 to 2 vote and sent it to the House for consideration.
American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont Policy Director Chloe White says passing the state Constitutional amendment is crucial to protecting reproductive rights in Vermont.  “I think it’s extraordinarily crucial to ensuring that we’re protecting against a national tide of anti-reproductive justice, legislation and judges that we’re standing up and fighting back and ensuring that whatever happens in the future here in Vermont or in the nation that we’re committed to protecting this as a fundamental right.”

Vermont Right to Life opposes the proposition but remained passive during the Senate proceedings.  Executive Director Mary Beerworth says while there are problems with the proposition, the group did not want the language to change.  “After the Senate passes that language out, which they did, then it cannot be changed. So that’s fine with us because that language is a Pandora’s Box of problems.  The language they chose to use does not mention abortion, so this is the Constitutional right that shall not be named. Now that it’s set and cannot be changed we will start lifting the problems with the issue and the language in the House.”

Amending the constitution in Vermont is a years-long process.  It must first be approved by the current legislature and then the next elected legislature. If it survives, it must pass a statewide referendum that would not occur until 2022.  Middlebury College Professor of Political Science Bert Johnson says Vermont’s constitution is among the most difficult to change.  “Vermont changes its constitution less often than other states.  Since 1870 there have been about 30 Constitutional amendments. Compared to other states Vermont has a pretty arduous amendment process that takes a while and so there have been relatively few compared to other states.”

Audio from the Vermont Senate is courtesy of the live webstream provided by Vermont Public Radio.  The Vermont Legislature is also considering bill H.57 which recognizes “freedom of reproductive choice” and prohibits public entities from interfering.   

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