The Word in the House 2/28/2019 - Navigating the Abortion Issue

For members of the Vermont legislature who work diligently to craft legislation that will address problems, protect rights, and generally keep our “brave little state” as a great place to live and work, there comes along in every biennium one or two very controversial issues.  Last year it was gun regulation. A few years ago it was removing the philosophical exemption for vaccines. In my first term it was the single-payer health care system. This year, as a result of the recent appointment of two conservative judges to the Supreme Court by President Trump and efforts in many states to make it much harder for women to obtain contraceptive and abortion services, efforts to protect reproductive choice for women flared up early in the session.

There is no doubt that, even before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision by the Supreme Court, the abortion issue had been divisive because it involves deeply held beliefs on both sides. While the arguments are usually presented in black and white terms, the issue has many shades of gray.  At one extreme is the belief that as soon as conception occurs a new human being is created and deserves the full protection of the law.  At the other extreme is the position that the fetus does not attain the status of a human being with rights and protections until birth.  The reality of the human condition, however, includes a great many different circumstances in between such as rape, incest, non-viability of the fetus, the health of the woman, reproductive freedom of choice, and other considerations.

 This year a bill, H.57, was introduced in the Vermont House to place in statute a woman’s right to access abortion services even if Roe v. Wade is reversed. Weeks of testimony, including a heavily attended public hearing with pro and con testimony from Vermont citizens, were heard by two House committees, Human Services and Judiciary. This was followed by two days of debate on the floor with about a dozen amendments offered.

In making my decision to vote for the bill, which passed on a vote of 106 to 37, I learned as much as I could from advocates of both sides and from medical sources and considered my responsibilities as a legislator.  First, it is not the job of the legislature to legislate religious beliefs.  Our decisions must be evidence-based. It is, however, the responsibility of government to protect human beings. Second, we know from biology that a fertilized egg initiates a new human life with unique DNA. One can legitimately argue, however, that a fertilized egg or an embryo in the early stages of fetal development is not quite a “human being” yet.

Third, again from a biological perspective, a fetus immediately before birth is the same human organism as it is after birth except for location and is, therefore, a human being. It then follows that the fetus attains the status of a human being at some point before birth. The Supreme court recognized as much in Roe v. Wade but declined to define that point other than the viability of the fetus. Fourth, by today’s medical capabilities, 23 weeks of gestation is the currently recognized point of viability of a normal fetus.  Medical practice in Vermont does not allow elective abortions to be performed after 22 weeks and six days without a prior consultation of the physician with the Medical Ethics Board of the hospital to determine if the abortion is medically necessary, such as a non-viable fetus or a danger to the life of the mother. Almost all unwanted pregnancies are terminated within the first 12 weeks. When abortions take place late in pregnancy, it is at great emotional expense for the parents who wanted the child. Finally, government should respect a woman’s autonomy over her reproductive decisions.

When confronted with controversial and emotional issues such as abortion, it is a legislator’s duty to listen with an open mind, to educate himself or herself as to facts, to weigh the facts carefully and logically before making a decision, and then to vote without fear or favor according to his or her conscience. This is what I try to do.

I will again hold “office hours” for anyone who wants to talk to me in person this Saturday, March 2, from 10 a.m. until noon, at the Charlotte Library. Drop by for a chat. Of course, I welcome your emails ( or phone calls (802-233-5238) as well.