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UVM reproductive health expert on the legal landscape for abortion in Vermont

Demonstrators protest outside of the U.S. Supreme Court on May 3, 2022 in Washington.
Alex Brando
Demonstrators protest outside of the U.S. Supreme Court on May 3, 2022 in Washington.

Monday night, a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion was published by Politico. The opinion indicated that the court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, two landmark decisions protecting the right to abortion.

The draft is not final, and the court may still decide to uphold abortion as a right protected by the constitution.

But if Roe and Casey are overturned, each state would decide whether or not abortion is legal. In Vermont, abortion is protected by law, and would remain legal even if the Supreme Court moves forward with its draft opinion.

So what would it mean for Vermont if Roe and Casey are overturned?

To answer that question, VPR's Grace Benninghoff spoke with Lauren MacAfee, an obstetrician, gynecologist and abortion provider at the University of Vermont Medical Center, and an assistant professor of reproductive health at the university’s medical school. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A woman smiles.
Lauren MacAfee

Grace Benninghoff: What was your reaction when you first heard about this leaked draft?

Lauren MacAfee: Within the reproductive health community, we've all been planning for many months, and even years, for the possibility of a landfall decision that could dramatically change the legislation around Roe v. Wade and abortion access in the United States. I think many of us were surprised by the early announcements of a potential decision. Though, obviously, this is still in preliminary stages. And so I think we're all continuing to work to make sure that we're enabling access and supporting the patients who need our care — both now and in the future.

Let's zoom out a little bit. What does this decision mean for Vermont? And as a provider, what does this mean for you and for your patients?

The reality is that in Vermont, we will continue to have access to abortion care and comprehensive reproductive services. If Roe v. Wade and and the Casey case goes through as potentially planned, it would then leave the access to abortion care and restrictions on abortion care to each individual state. And Vermont has decided that we support reproductive health care decisions — that those should be made between a patient and their health care provider.

What is going to change, potentially, is patients trying to access services from states where abortion has been restricted, or is challenging to access. And so some of our neighboring states — New Hampshire, Maine, certainly the South, in the Midwest — may have patients that come to Vermont seeking our services as a result of limited access in their respective states.

That brings me to my next question. The Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research group, says there are 26 states where abortion is certain or likely to become illegal if the court overturns Roe. Do we know how many patients could be coming to Vermont for abortions if that does happen?

Yeah, it's a great question, and certainly a big unknown. We anticipate that, probably, a lot of patients will go to the states closest to them with abortion access and with states that have easy access via public transportation, either airplane, bus, what have you. So I suspect states like New York, for example, will have a much larger volume and influx of patients because of their geographic location.

But for what it's worth, we're already seeing patients crossing state lines, and sometimes country lines, in order to access abortion care — even here in Vermont. We've seen patients from Texas. We've seen patients in the military who didn't have access to those services and came back to Vermont because they had a connection here, perhaps a family member, or friend or someone supportive where they could access the services that they needed in a safe and supportive environment. Even without a full ban on abortion in some places, some of the restrictions in other states are so onerous that it's too challenging for them to even access those services.

Which unfortunately, obviously, widens the divide for folks of lower socioeconomic status who maybe already are struggling to make ends meet. They may not be able to have access to the support and resources to travel long distances.

Is there a typical profile of someone who gets an abortion in Vermont?

The answer is no. There is no kind of profile for abortion access patients per se. So we see patients of all walks of life: of all ages, married, unmarried, with kids, without kids. A variety of different religious affiliations, and education levels and socioeconomic statuses. And so no, there is no typical patient who is seeking abortion care.

There is a proposed amendment called Prop 5 that establishes reproductive freedom as a constitutionally protected right. That'll be on the ballot in November. Why is Prop 5 important? And how is it different from the state law we already have the keeps abortion legal here?

State laws are relatively easy to both enact and repeal. And so as a result, they can be subject to that short legislative session and the ideological views of that current legislative session. Whereas a constitutional amendment takes two full legislative sessions and a public vote on a ballot — it's a lot harder to overturn and repeal. And so it was meant to be a much more long-standing process.

And I'll be clear, you know, abortion is not specifically laid out within the reproductive liberty amendment, but it really is highlighted as one of the pieces that will be positively impacted in this idea that Vermont supports the liberty of its citizens, including calling out reproductive liberty. And that can be interpreted in a number of different ways, but really trying to ensure that voters understand that this is supporting their decisions around reproductive health, including parenting, pregnancy, not parenting, not being pregnant, sterilization. And really trying to keep that between a patient, their support people and their health care team.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with Grace Benninghoff @gbenninghoff1.

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