By ERIN ROLL
New Jersey’s proposed Reproductive Freedom Act would guarantee that women have access to abortion, birth control and other forms of reproductive health care, such as breast and cervical exams, regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay.
On Oct. 21, Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller hosted a one-hour town hall about the proposed legislation with six other panelists: Kaitlyn Wojtowicz, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey; Marcia Marley of BlueWaveNJ; Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake; Freeholder President Brendan Gill; Erin Chung, executive director of Women for Progress, who also works with Planned Parenthood, and Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams.
The proposed law was introduced in the Senate on Oct. 8 and in the Assembly on Oct. 19, where it was referred to the Assembly Health Committee. It has three goals:
- • Ensure that all New Jerseyans have the right to make their own personal health decisions when it comes to birth control and pregnancy-related care, including abortion.
- • Eliminate financial barriers that could prevent anyone from making their own personal reproductive health decisions. Key provisions of the bill require that private insurance companies would have to cover birth control and abortion care with no out-of-pocket costs, to ensure that a person’s income or insurance status does not dictate their ability to access time-sensitive health care.
- • Expand access to reproductive health care by breaking down medically unnecessary restrictions that now block access to care.
New Jersey legislators introduced the Reproductive Freedom Act following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 18. Ginsburg’s death, and the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett as her replacement, have prompted widespread concern that the landmark Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, which protects a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction, could be overturned.
Spiller said he came up with the idea for the town hall when, after being elected mayor, constituents wrote to him with their concerns about reproductive rights being curtailed.
The panelists said that one of the greatest worries around reproductive care was that women with low incomes or little insurance would not be able to afford care or abortion services. The impact is especially high for communities of color, which have also been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
“Wealthy women have always had access for as long as there has been abortion,” Marley said. She noted that in states where restrictions on abortion exist, there tend to be higher rates of maternal and infant mortality.
“Access for all income levels. Is it really necessary? Yes,” Marley said. “It’s our health rights, it’s our rights, it’s our equality at stake.”
Timberlake said that her great-aunt became pregnant and sought a back-alley abortion out of fear. She died during the procedure, Timberlake said.
Timberlake also mentioned that she is a supporter of women being able to have access to different birthing services, such as midwives and doulas.
In opposition to the Reproductive Freedom Act, however, are groups such as New Jersey Right to Life.
“Although the proposed legislation is sure to appease the abortion industry and a small minority of Governor Murphy’s pro-abortion supporters to shore up his base for his reelection, this type of extreme measure is not supported by the majority of people in our state or across our nation who support life-protective laws and limits on abortion. That is surely why the majority party and governor will not seek voter approval on this type of measure, but instead seek to act in an autocratic manner to oppress the will of the people,” Right to Life Director Marie Tasy said in a statement Oct. 2.
Montclair is home to at least one clinic that provides abortion services: the Pilgrim Medical Center on Bloomfield Avenue.
Anti-abortion protesters have been holding vigils across the street from the center for about 30 years.
Chung said abortion services constitute only 4 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services. The majority of services include providing birth control, offering counseling and conducting screening for breast and cervical cancer. She added that it is not just women who are served by Planned Parenthood; men make up 18 percent of Planned Parenthood’s patients.
Chung remembered one patient who came to Planned Parenthood for a breast exam. The exam discovered a lump, and the clinic helped the patient enroll in Medicaid and started her on a course of treatment.
In 2019, Murphy signed into law a package of bills aimed at improving access to maternal health care. The supporting legislators noted that New Jersey has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the United States, and that the mortality rate is disproportionately high for communities of color.