Legislators hosted a panel discussion on reproductive health care on Wednesday. Mackenzie Rigg / CTMirror.org

If the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision that established women’s constitutional right to abortion were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, women would still have that right in Connecticut where it was codified into law decades ago, participants in a state discussion panel said Wednesday.

Prompted by the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and concerns his replacement would create a more conservative court that could overturn the long-standing decision, a group of bipartisan Connecticut legislators gathered Wednesday to discuss state and federal laws around abortion, as well as other reproductive health issues, with experts from the ACLU of Connecticut, Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut and other groups.

Many have questioned the fate of Roe v. Wade, since Kennedy’s retirement and President Donald Trump’s nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to replace Kennedy. Trump has vowed that his appointees to the Supreme Court would help to overturn Roe v. Wade.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter Clarice Silber / CTMirror.org

“After Kavanaugh’s nomination, we got a lot of questions about what would this mean in Connecticut,” said House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, after the nearly two-hour panel discussion. “I think what came out today also is the equal access issue and we have to make sure access is equal.”

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said at the beginning of the panel discussion that she knew “we all have very serious concerns about the state of our law and the state of the federal law.”

“This is the kind of thing that is helpful for us,” Klarides continued, ” … to have people that really have the most knowledge about this subject matter talk to us about it, allow us to have interaction and interchange with it, and do it in a very professional bi-partisan, and nonpartisan … way.”

“I don’t look at this as a political issue,” she said. “I look at this as an issue of health and an issue of choice.”

In Connecticut, the protections in Roe v. Wade were codified in state law in 1990. Therefore, even if Roe vs. Wade were overturned, this state law would remain intact and enforceable, panelists said.

“Our state is on solid ground when it comes to a legal right to abortion in our state,” said Meghan Holden, communications director at the ACLU of Connecticut. “While we can do more to create equal access to abortion for everyone … our state is in a position to create a model for the rest of the nation.”

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides. Keith M. Phaneuf / CTMirror.org

Others brought up the barriers to access to abortion, which include transportation, employment and child care.

“When we think about health equity, we think about all the systems that come into play with a person being able to access health care, but even just reproductive health care in general,” said Claudine Fox, program director at Health Equity Solutions. “Even though Connecticut has protections in place, has codified protections around reproductive justice, the fight isn’t over and the fight isn’t new.”

Other concerns raised included threats to Title X funding — the only federal program specifically dedicated to supporting the delivery of family planning care — and the operation of crisis pregnancy centers in the state.

“We’ve made a lot of progress … but despite all the progress and advancement in reproductive health rights, we’ve been under constant threat since January of 2017 from the federal government,” said Gretchen Raffa, director of public policy at Planned Parenthood of Southern New England. “Over the last year and half, we’ve seen the Trump/Pence administration relentlessly attack our work.”

Raffa said some of the progress includes the Connecticut legislature’s decision in May to codify the Affordable Care Act’s essential benefits into state law, which includes giving access to a 12-month supply of birth control for free.

But then she spoke about the proposed changes to Title X, which Planned Parenthood has vigorously opposed, as have Connecticut Gov. Dannel P.  Malloy and State Attorney General George Jepsen.

A Planned Parenthood clinic. CTMIRROR.ORG FILE PHOTO

Planned Parenthood has 16 sites in Connecticut — the majority of which receive Title X funding — and provides about 80 percent of Title X services in the state.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the proposed regulations interpret counseling and referral for abortion to be activities that would be considered providing “abortion as a method of family planning” and would prohibit Title X grantees and subrecipients from providing, promoting, referring for, supporting, or presenting abortion services to patients.

The proposed regulations would allow for a limited exception only if a pregnant Title X patient has already decided to have an abortion and explicitly requests a referral. In this case, a doctor (and not any other clinical staff) would be permitted – but not be required — to provide the pregnant woman with a list of health care providers that offer comprehensive health care, some of which also provide abortion, but this would not include Planned Parenthood. The Title X doctor may not indicate which providers on the list offer abortion services.

“The rule would have devastating consequences for patients, for health care providers and the entire medical system if it is actually finalized,” Raffa said. “It would put providers in an untenable position of having to violate ethical standards that would normally require them to provide complete and accurate information about a patient’s health care option.”

Crisis pregnancy centers

In June, the Supreme Court backed crisis pregnancy centers — pro-life centers that offer pregnancy-related services — in a free speech case that challenged a California law that regulated them.

The California law, known as the FACT Act, required some crisis pregnancy centers to notify women that the state provided free or low-cost services, including abortions, and to give them a phone number to call.

The Supreme Court found, in a 5-4 decision, that this requirement violated the First Amendment, according to the court’s written opinion.

Sarah Croucher, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut, said Connecticut has 25 crisis pregnancy centers. Croucher referred to them as “fake women’s health centers,” which are religiously based.

“There are many reasons that people want to seek and deliberately seek out religiously based counseling and that’s totally appropriate for them and they should go and seek out that counseling,” Croucher said. “What is a problem is when people are seeking real health care and end up at a religiously based center that is not giving them real information and they’re being deceived about that center.

“They are created by anti-abortion organizations who are very clear at the national level about their mission to end abortion, to lure individuals who are seeking abortion away from real health care providers and to block their access to that health care,” she added.

In February, representatives from crisis pregnancy centers held a press conference at the Legislative Office Building, where they said that these centers, which they called pregnancy resource centers, have peacefully coexisted in the state for decades and do not falsely advertise about the centers’ services or shame women who make abortion choices.

Croucher said on Wednesday the Hartford City Council passed an ordinance last December, in response to issues raised at the city’s crisis pregnancy center, which requires the center to post a sign that states whether a licensed medical provider is on site, and prohibits deceptive advertising practices.

She said the Hartford ordinance is not subject to June’s Supreme Court ruling.

“This ruling is deeply problematic. It’s a ruling that shows that the Supreme Court, even as it stands today, is not in favor of supporting genuine, open, truthful access to health care for people in our country. It’s a ruling that says that it is okay to lie to people when they go into these centers,” Croucher said.

“But I also want to make clear that what we have been doing here in Connecticut and the path that we’re working on that we think could help protect people here in our state from people who are trying to deceive them is one that steers clear of that case,” she said.

Mackenzie is a former health reporter at CT Mirror. Prior to her time at CT Mirror, she covered health care, social services and immigration for the News-Times in Danbury and has more than a decade of reporting experience. She traveled to Uganda for the News-Times to report an award-winning five-part series about a Connecticut doctor's experience in Africa. A native of upstate New York, she started her journalism career at The Recorder in Greenfield, Mass., and worked at Newsday on Long Island for three years. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she wrote her master's thesis about illegal detentions in Haiti's women's prison.

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