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Vt. abortion rights opponent on the Supreme Court leak, proposed reproductive rights amendment

Anti-abortion protests hold signs.
Vic Hinterlang
Anti-abortion protestors demonstrate outside the Texas Capitol in a 2013 file photo.

Thousands of protestors gathered in Montpelier over the weekend in support of abortion rights — one ofseveral hundred rallies that took place across the country.

For the first time in half a century, states will likely decide whether abortion is legal within their borders. That’s after a U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion was leaked indicating the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling is likely to fall.

In Vermont, abortion is protected by law with few restrictions. And keeping the procedure legal has widespread public support amongst Vermonters, according to a recent VPR-Vermont PBS poll.

For the last few years, there has also been a push to enshrine reproductive healthcare — which includes abortion — into the Vermont Constitution through Prop 5, which would make it extremely difficult to significantly restrict access in the state.

Still, some Vermonters remain opposed to abortion and would like to see stronger restrictions in place.

To discuss how the leaked draft might impact Vermont’s anti-abortion movement going forward, VPR's Grace Benninghoff spoke with Mary Hahn Beerworth, president of the Vermont Right to Life Committee. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Grace Benninghoff: This draft is widely considered to be a strong indication that the Supreme Court may overturn Roe. If that does happen, how would that impact your organization's work in Vermont?

A woman smiles.
Mary Hanh Beerworth.

Mary Hahn Beerworth: Well, our work here has been cut out for us since a full year before Roe, when Vermont legalized abortion in a court decision called [Beecham v. Leahy]. So abortion has been legal here since 1972. And so at any point in the process, if Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion would be legal in Vermont.

You're an anti-abortion activist in a state with a really progressive Legislature and a Republican governor who supports pro-choice legislation. How do you approach this work given Vermont's political reality? And what are your realistic hopes for the state?

So let me clarify. I am not an anti-abortion activist — I'm pro life. And that is proven over the years; our mission statement, back in 1971, included abortion, infanticide and euthanasia.

We are not deterred in any way by the nature of the Legislature and the nature of our governor's attitude toward abortion or any of that, because people misunderstand the pro-life movement. Our goal is not just to ban abortions, it's to uphold the sanctity of human life — and to bring the number of abortions down to zero.

There are a lot of studies suggesting providing free access to contraception is effective at reducing abortion rates. Is that something that you support?

We don't take any position on birth control; it's not part of our mission. The mission is from the moment of conception to natural death.

And no. Planned Parenthood, if you go and look at what they advocate, they have their condoms in our schools that are made readily available for kids. And kids who really are too young to be making major decisions like getting involved sexually, instead of encouraging kids to wait. Planned Parenthood runs contrary to what most parents think they want their children taught in school.

Let me pivot and ask you a little bit about Prop 5, because that is on the ballot in November.

I know that the Vermont Right to Life Committee opposes Prop 5. Can you just tell me a little bit more about exactly which parts of the measure you oppose? I know it's a reproductive health measure. So abortion is part of that, but not the only thing that Prop 5 protects.

Right, we're going to just be discussing how it impacts the pro-life movement and abortion in Vermont. Without a doubt, it means unlimited, unregulated abortion through all nine months of pregnancy. There is nobody disputing that that's what that means. We will not be taking the lead on this. It's just way, way bigger, and way broader, than just the right to life.

Just to be clear, even though Vermont doesn't restrict access to abortion after a specific point in pregnancy, there is nowhere in the state that provides abortions past 30 weeks, I understand that you aren't heading up this issue. But in regards to abortion, what specifically does the committee oppose about Prop 5?

All of it. I mean, the wording is vague. It's just beyond — it's the most dangerous thing I've ever seen presented to the voters. And it's very deceptive. Of course, everyone's going to think personal reproductive autonomy sounds like a good idea.

So it's going to be a huge job of educating Vermonters and we're excited about the opportunity. Because the more people hear about what really happens in abortion and what the motivation is — this is all an opportunity for us to reach out and have a conversation with people who are genuinely pro-life as well as people who are genuinely pro-choice, but not pro-abortion.

What restrictions would you like to see here in Vermont? I've heard you mention parental notification. Do you support ultrasound requirements, gestational limits?

Of course, I would have a long list. So I would love to see resources on college campuses that help have women not make that choice between the two — that a woman who feels that she would like to carry to term either to give her baby up for adoption, or to keep the baby, doesn't have to pick between her education and and her baby.

Yes, having more information is always something we want to see. We would love to see women at least offered a chance to look at the ultrasound or hear the heart beating. But those are the kinds of information that we now have the opportunity to share with more Vermonters. And we're going to do that.

You've made it really clear that Vermont Right to Life really supports families. You'd like to see more people carry pregnancies to term and raise healthy, happy kids. So I'm interested what other types of policies your organization advocates for to fulfill this vision. Do you support universal pre-K, paid family leave?

The pregnancy resource centers are all funded by Vermonters who want to offer women better choices. Our mission is to uphold the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception — to defend that little infant that may be at risk for infanticide because that child has a disability. And to defend the right to good medical care and not euthanasia at the end of life. So we do not go any further than those three. And child care and those issues have plenty of defenders. We are not going to divide our purpose up any further than what have been the three areas of respecting life.

If Prop 5 does pass in November, where do you think the Vermont Right to Life Committee would focus its energy moving forward?

Where we've always focused it — on education, education, education. The doors to this office will always be open. We want to make sure we are providing the best information we can to our supporters, and we want to keep winning people to our cause with information. We will probably always be at the Statehouse; our office is right next door. And we always will go and see what's going on and make sure that we are upholding the sanctity of human life now for those babies.

Two hundred and fifteen plants and animals have legal protection in Vermont. If Proposal 5 passes, an unborn child will have zero protection under the law — no matter what. That constitutional amendment reduces an unborn child to beneath a plant or an animal in our state. And I think that's shocking to a lot of people.

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

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