Committee chair incorrectly says U.S. law bans late-term abortions
By Guy Page
In a Wednesday night public hearing on the floor of the House of Representatives marked by empty seats and generally sedate testimony, the House Human Services Committee took testimony on Proposition 5, which would amend the Vermont Constitution to allow unrestricted abortion.
The hearing was a ‘hybrid’ of in-person and Zoom testimony. Observers were surprised to learn that the pro-Prop 5 speakers outnumbered the opponents 2-1. At past public hearings on important abortion legislation, the ratio was carefully kept at 1:1. Yet this was not the case last night.
Chair Ann Pugh explained that registration was taken online and that per long-standing custom, “names were taken on a first come first serve basis.” For reasons unknown, the pro-Prop 5 speakers apparently signed up more quickly than the opponents. The online registration was stopped Monday night.
Pugh explained that the order of testimony would be two supporters, then an opponent, and then two supporters, and then an opponent, and so on, in order to provide what she called “balance.”
One thing both sides had in common: difficulty with testifying by Zoom. Pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike had to fiddle for long moments to get their audio and video working. Once they began to testify, their words were often difficult to understand due to inadequate computer microphones.
Unlike past abortion legislation public hearings marked by packed galleries and high energy, last night’s event had a calm, almost ‘going through the motions’ feel. About 60 people, socially distanced, sat in on the floor level. Only three members of the press attended. Otherwise the upper gallery was virtually empty.
Nevertheless, Pugh admonished against any outburst. “This is not a play or a sporting event, we are here to listen and to be quiet,” she said. “We are here to listen.”
Here’s a smattering of what they heard:
The problem with affirming ‘reproductive autonomy’ in the Vermont Constitution is that it opens the door to judicial approval of many heretofore unthinkable practices, such as human cloning and designer babies, Annisa Lamberton said. “It is designed for judicial power, which is a travesty of our representative form of government.”
A Prop 5 supporter named Mary (last name unintelligible) of Bennington said that without Prop 5, other horrors could be legislated. Noting Vermont’s history of sterilization of indigenous and low income, “Our state could potentially enact a law that would allow forced sterlization.”
What happens when an elective medical procedure becomes a constitutional right?,” Michelle Morin asked rhetorically. Her answer – no-one knows, because it’s never happened before. However she predicted a drain of health care providers who move elsewhere because Prop 5 will remove their conscience protections. “Vermont needs more health care providers, not fewer,” she said.
Carrie Handy of the Vermont Family Alliance said that Prop 5 will lead to “erosion of the rights of Vermont parents to make decisions for their own families and their own children according to their own values.” Like Lamberton, she questioned the wisdom of “Let the courts decide.”
“Why do this intentionally?,” Handy asked. “What exactly is meant by reproductive autonomy? No one knows.”
Midway through the testimony Pugh also warned online testifiers to use no backgrounds or props to make their point, because doing so would give them an unfair advantage over people testifying in person without benefit of either.
“I’m urging you to vote against Prop 5,” Deb Couture said. “It is too broad and too vague. Abortion is not health care, and women deserve better. Do the right thing and vote no on Proposal 5.”
Tracy of Brattleboro said she had an abortion after an unplanned pregnancy. The health center where the abortion was performed was “caring and helpful” and made sure she was “free of harassment and threats” from protesters.
Unlike Handy and others, Tracy had no trouble defining what Prop 5 means to her. “Reproductive freedom means I can decide for myself whether I have a child. I am a person worthy of having human rights.”
Shannara Johnson said 71% of Americans want at least some restrictions on abortion. “Prop 5 allows no restrictions whatsoever,” she said. A baby born at 21 weeks is considered viable – yet would have no constitutional rights in Prop 5 passes. She disputed the application of expression of “my body, my choice” to abortion, because “it’s someone else’s body, not yours.”
“No political or moral entities should be allowed to dictate when someone becomes a parent,” said Randall Perkins of Manchester. Prop 5 is needed in Vermont because “right now about half of the U.S. is on the verge of banning or restricting abortion rights.”
Martin Green of Waterville said it’s remarkable that a committee named Human Services supports an amendment allowing the killing of a human being. “She is a unique person, fully deserving of the right to life and the protection of law.”
Carolyn Moore said she and her husband were required to terminate her pregnancies for medical reasons. She urged the Committee to pass Prop 5 and leave these difficult decisions to the parents.
Sally Ballin, South Burlington educator and writer said that “The main reason the amendment is necessary now is because times are changing,” with the U.S. Supreme Court poised to possibly overturn Roe V. Wade. “The essential question is, who should be making the decision? And of course, the answer is women.”
Carol (last name unintelligible), a nurse from Warren, backed Prop 5. She said that more than 50 years ago she was raped, and gave the child up for adoption. “At the time there were few or no options.” She urged more education about family planning and contraception.
Peter Anderson of Jericho said that the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Roe V. Wade at least attempted to balance a woman’s right to privacy with other important concerns. Prop 5 lacks this balance, he said.
“It’s difficult to balance competing interests, but that’s how a democracy works,” Anderson said.
Over the years the Legislature has steadfastly refused to consider any restrictions, including banning third trimester abortions and allowing parental notification. Even now there are seven bills before the Legislature to limit unrestricted abortion, Anderson said.
“Where have you been?,” Anderson asked the lawmakers. “49 years, and all this state can come up with is Proposal 5?”
Timothy Counts of Arlington said Prop 5’s ‘reproductive autonomy’ will actually put people in jeopardy – leading to legalized prostituition, stripping away conscience rights from health care professionals, and even the sale of baby parts. “By having Prop 5 you will be creating two classes of Vermonters,” Counts said: those who agree with it, and those who don’t. “Those who disagree will slowly have their rights stripped away,” he predicted.
“I’m an advocate for the vulnerable, and a woman with an unwanted pregnancy is vulnerable,” longtime social worker and state human services official Joe Patrissi said. “Yet the baby is vulnerable too. When you look at it like this, there’s two people. Is there an easy answer to this? No.” But providing abortion without restriction is not the answer, he said.
Dorothy Kyle of Warren referenced her teen years in the 1950’s, when her family was lucky to know a New York City Ob-gyn who would perform abortions, helping families “weather the storm.” She decried the “loud voices” of the pro-life movement who would return us to the “dark years” of pre-Roe.
John Klar of Brookfield called Prop 5 an “infanticide bill.” Late term abortions are the definition of infanticide, and Prop 5 would remove all restrictions to late term abortions, he said.
Former legislator Robin Chesnut-Tangerman of Middletown Springs called reproductive freedom “a highly charged and ultimately personal issue.” To critics who say the amendment is too broad and vague and will be left to the courts, “I would remind them that that is exactly the job description of the judicial branch.”
If Prop 5 passes the House, it will go to a statewide voter referendum November 8.
UPDATE: in the Human Services Committee today, Chair Ann Pugh told the committee today that federal law prohibits late term abortions. Sharon Toborg, policy analyst for Vermont Right to Life, was sitting in the room.
She was aghast. “This is not accurate. There is no such law that exists,” Toborg said.
There is a federal law banning partial birth abortion in which a fetus is partially delivered, then is killed while the child’s head is inside the body. But many other late-term abortion procedures are used – including some practiced at UVMMC, Toborg said.
Toborg said she tried to politely correct the record, by raising my hand and speaking – a procedural no-no during committee discussions. She was promptly told by Pugh that “if I continued to speak out, I would be removed from the committee room,” Toborg said afterwards.
However, Pugh did ask Legislative Louncil lawyers for confirmation of her claim.
“How, after four years of H57 and Prop 5, can the chair of the committee not know the status of abortion in the United States?,” Toborg wondered aloud to Vermont Daily Chronicle. “And how can we trust anything they say about Proposal 5 if they are so ignorant of the reality now?”