Statehouse Headliners: Committee sends abortion constitutional amendment to Senate

By Guy Page

Key language in Proposal 5, the constitutional amendment for unrestricted abortion, could allow unrestricted assisted suicide and legal prostitution, a former Vermont Supreme Court law clerk and veteran Vermont attorney advised the Vermont Senate Health and Welfare Committee Thursday, March 21.

The original draft of Proposal 5 said (page 817 of 3/26 Senate Calendar): “That the people are guaranteed the liberty and dignity to determine their own life’s course. The right to personal reproductive autonomy is central to the liberty protected by this Constitution and shall not be denied or infringed.”

Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership, the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, and Physicians, Families & Friends for a Better Vermont.

The wording in the first sentence was too fuzzy for attorney Norm Smith. The Essex Junction lawyer graduated from MIT, earned a law degree from Boston University, clerked in 1980-81 for Supreme Court Justice Albert Barney, and sits on two VT Supreme Court oversight committees. Mr. Smith told Senate Health and Welfare:

“Proposal  5 purports merely to protect reproductive liberty. As written, however, it does much more than that. The first line of proposed Article 22 states, ‘That the people are guaranteed the liberty and dignity to determine their own life’s course.’ I do not know what this means. It is written so broadly and open-ended that the Legislature is leaving it up to the Courts to interpret its meaning. What is one’s ‘own life’s course?’ Is it making medical decisions for oneself? Is it deciding on a lifestyle? Does it include the right to harm oneself?”

Smith, speaking on behalf of the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, warned Prop 5 could invalidate protections in Act 39, the assisted death law, requiring patients to have a prescription from a doctor. It also could invalidate bans on prostitution, he said.

Because an amendment to the Vermont Constitution cannot be easily changed, the Legislature strives to establish precise meaning and intent. In response to concerns shared by Smith and others, Health and Welfare on Friday voted unanimously to send a revision (also on page 817) to the full Senate. The full text appears in the Senate calendar for Tuesday, March 26. Discussion and vote by the Senate could happen as soon as Wednesday. The “one’s own life course” language in Article 22 is essentially intact:

“That an individual’s right to personal reproductive autonomy is central to the Constitutional guarantee of liberty and the dignity to determine one’s own life course, and shall not be denied or infringed.”

If approved by the Senate, Prop 5 will go to the House. As a proposed Constitutional Amendment, it must be voted on in a statewide referendum. If it succeeds this year, it must also be approved in another biennium (2020-21 to soonest) and then go to voters on Election Day, November 2022.

Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.

Image courtesy of Bruce Parker/TNR
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