States take action to secure abortion laws

4 mins read
Participants in the annual Rally for Life in Montpelier, Vt., carry signs to the Statehouse on Jan. 26. CNS photo by Cori Fugere Urban, Vermont Catholic

Emboldened by Democratic wins in last November’s elections and seizing on fears that a U.S. Supreme Court with a conservative majority could strike down Roe v. Wade, the abortion lobby is pushing to cement abortion’s legality in individual states and strike down most if not all restrictions on late-term or partial-birth abortions.

In liberal-leaning states such as New York, Vermont, Rhode Island and Illinois, the political allies of Planned Parenthood and NARAL are championing bills that they say “codify” or make permanent in state law Roe v. Wade’s premise that abortion is a right under the U.S. Constitution.

But pro-life activists and state Catholic conference officials who have analyzed those bills told Our Sunday Visitor that the legislation in their states is geared not only to declare abortion to be a fundamental human right, but also to make it easier for women to obtain an abortion with virtually no restrictions by the state.

Among several provisions that are problematic from a Catholic pro-life point of view, the bills would remove conscience protections, compel medical professionals to participate in abortions, repeal prohibitions on partial-birth abortions, allow nonphysicians to perform abortions, require insurance companies to cover abortion with no copays, and make it possible for babies to be aborted right up until birth.

Unprecedented efforts

“There is a local effort here in the state of Illinois and a national effort certainly by Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and their partners to advance abortion legislation,” said Peter Breen, vice president and senior counsel of the Illinois-based Thomas More Society, a not-for-profit law firm that defends life, family and religious liberty.

In mid-February, the Thomas More Society released a 13-page report outlining why the Reproductive Health Act in Illinois would expand access to abortion far beyond the precedent that the U.S. Supreme Court established in its 1973 landmark case on abortion.

The Illinois bill, which is pending in the state legislature, would make abortion legal through all nine months of pregnancy, up until the moment of birth, for virtually any reason, the Thomas More Society said. The bill would force health insurance providers to cover abortion, with no exceptions for religious organizations. It would also strike down a conscience protection that allows medical professionals to decline to participate in an abortion. The Illinois bill would also nullify the state’s ban on partial-birth abortions.

“The Reproductive Health Act is problematic in many ways. The most glaring and obvious is it defining abortion as health care, saying it’s a fundamental right, that the unborn child has no rights under the law,” said Zachary Wichmann, director of government relations for the Catholic Conference of Illinois.

“Obviously, this is a priority for the bishops, to try to defeat this legislation. We’re going to do everything we can,” Wichmann told OSV.

‘An abortion haven’

Lawmakers in Rhode Island and Vermont are considering similar bills. On Jan. 30, Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of Burlington, Vermont, released a statement warning Catholics that the Vermont bill, which the state House of Representatives approved on Feb. 20, would guarantee unrestricted abortion through all nine months of pregnancy while declaring the unborn child to have no individual rights.

“My friends, that is not abortion. That is infanticide. And this law would legislate that right to an abortion — to infanticide — not be ‘denied, restricted, or infringed by any government entity,'” Bishop Coyne said, quoting the bill.

A recent legal analysis by attorney Paul Benjamin Linton, a lawyer who served as general counsel of Americans United for Life, found that the pending bill in Rhode Island would turn that state into “an abortion haven” where virtually any unborn child could be killed up until the moment of birth, with no recourse to restrict or regulate abortion facilities.

“The pro-abortion folks are using fear, uncertainty and doubt to push an extreme agenda,” said Deacon Barth Bracy, the executive director of the Rhode Island Right to Life Committee. Deacon Bracy told OSV that the pro-abortion bills in Rhode Island and elsewhere show how “elections have consequences.”

“You saw that in New York, where they flipped the state senate,” Bracy said.

Planned Parenthood state

Last November, Democrats — riding a “Blue Wave” of opposition to President Donald Trump that toppled many Republicans in state legislatures and in Congress — gained control of the New York Senate. Suddenly, the Empire State’s version of the Reproductive Health Act, which was first filed in 2007, became a top priority for Democratic lawmakers, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is Catholic.

“They did what Planned Parenthood wanted them to do,” said Kathleen M. Gallagher, director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference and director of the Catholic Action Network.

Cuomo signed the Reproductive Health Act on Jan. 22. The law expands late-term abortion by removing language that previously permitted abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy only in cases where they were necessary to save a woman’s life. The new law has a vague health exception that has been broadly interpreted by the courts to include age, economic, social and emotional factors.

Gallagher added that New York’s law also removed abortion from the state’s penal law code, which previously allowed law enforcement to prosecute people who coerced women into having an abortion or harmed an unborn child.

“We had specifically written to legislative leaders to say, ‘We know you’re getting close to passing this reproductive health bill. We think you should take another look at the criminal aspect of this,'” Gallagher said. “But Planned Parenthood wanted them to take abortion completely out of the criminal code.”

Realm of legal infanticide

A similar bill in Virginia that would have lifted restrictions on late-term abortions failed this year after a statewide lobbying effort led in part by the Virginia Catholic Conference. The bill would have allowed for late-term abortions in cases where pregnancy would impair the mental and physical health of the mother. One physician would be needed to approve the procedure.

“At 40 weeks the unborn child could be completely healthy, and only one physician would be required to find that somehow the woman’s mental health would be impaired by the continuation of the pregnancy in order to allow for that child to be then aborted,” said Felicia Pricenor, the associate director of the Virginia Catholic Conference.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat who is a pediatric neurologist, supported the legislation. He made headlines after a radio interview in January where he discussed third-trimester abortions. Republicans accused the governor of supporting legal infanticide, an accusation the governor’s office pushed back against as being taken out of context.

“I think no matter what the context the governor was trying to provide, the fact he supports this legislation openly in that interview is shocking,” Pricenor said. “The underlying legislation is something Virginia should never even consider, never mind have to fight against, because it completely disregards the life of the unborn.”

Brian Fraga

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.