Vermont voters to decide whether to add a right to personal reproductive autonomy to the state constitution in November

On Feb. 8, the Vermont House of Representatives took the final vote to send Proposal 5 to the November ballot. Proposal 5 would add language to the Vermont Constitution stating that “an individual’s right to personal reproductive autonomy is central to the liberty and dignity to determine one’s own life course.” The amendment would prohibit the constitutional right from being denied or infringed unless there is a compelling state interest, which would need to be achieved using the least restrictive means.

The amendment has received support from the University of Vermont Medical Center, ACLU of Vermont, and League of Women Voters of Vermont. Rep. Ann Pugh (D-Chittenden) said, “The lack of a definitive enumeration of reproductive liberty in Vermont’s Constitution, the threats to Roe v. Wade being weakened or overturned by a very conservative US Supreme Court, and the cloud of multi-state efforts to erode reproductive autonomy all build a strong case for Proposition 5.”

Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Washington), who voted against the amendment, said she was worried about how the term, “reproductive autonomy,” could evolve. She said, “It’s a term far more open to interpretation and, in fact, could mean a great many things that we don’t currently envision.”

In Vermont, a constitutional amendment requires a vote in each chamber of the Vermont General Assembly in two successive legislative sessions with an election in between. However, there are different vote requirements depending on the session and chamber. During the first legislative session, a constitutional amendment needs to receive a two-thirds vote in the state Senate and a simple majority (50%+1) vote in the state House. During the second legislative session, a constitutional amendment needs to receive a simple majority vote in each legislative chamber.

The amendment was introduced during the 2019-2020 legislative session. The lead sponsors were State Sens. Timothy Ashe (D-Chittenden), Becca Balint (D-Windham), Virginia Lyons (D-Chittenden), and Richard Sears (D-Bennington).

On April 4, 2019, the state Senate approved Proposal 5 in a vote of 28-2. To meet the two-thirds vote requirement, at least 21 votes were needed to pass the amendment. On May 7, 2019, the state House approved Proposal 5 in a vote of 106-38, with four members absent and one member abstaining. To meet the simple majority requirement, at least 73 votes were needed.

The amendment was taken up again during the 2021-2022 legislative session. On April 9, 2021, the state Senate approved the amendment by a vote of 26-4. A simple majority of 15 was required to pass the amendment in the senate the second time. On February 8, 2022, the state House approved the amendment by a vote of 107-41.

The amendment is one of three amendments related to abortion that has qualified for a statewide 2022 ballot. In August, Kansas voters will decide a constitutional amendment that would say that nothing in the state constitution creates a right to abortion or requires government funding for abortion. In November, Kentucky voters will also decide a constitutional amendment to adopt similar language.

In Michigan, a citizen initiative targeting the 2022 ballot has been proposed that would create a state constitutional right to reproductive freedom. Nicole Wells Stallworth, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, said, “We have reached a critical moment in history for abortion access in Michigan with the Supreme Court poised to overturn nearly 50 years of precedent and restrict abortion access for 2.2 million Michiganders. We are exploring a ballot measure that would preserve every individual’s constitutional right to make the very personal decision about reproductive healthcare.”

Ballotpedia has identified six ballot measures to amend state constitutions to declare that nothing in the state constitution provides a right to abortion. In Tennessee (2014), Alabama (2018), West Virginia (2018), and Louisiana (2020), these constitutional amendments were passed. In Massachusetts (1986) and Florida (2012), these constitutional amendments were defeated.

In November, Vermont voters will also decide Proposal 2, which would prohibit slavery and indentured servitude without exception in the state constitution. The 2022 amendments are the first to appear on Vermont ballots since 2010. Between 1995 and 2022, Vermont voters approved the only other two amendments that appeared on statewide ballots.

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