Thirty-two years after Connecticut seemingly settled the issue of abortion by codifying the tenets of Roe v. Wade in state law, the issue is literally and figuratively back on the doorstep of the state Capitol.
The March for Life, a national anti-abortion organization, is staging a rally Wednesday on the Capitol steps as the U.S. Supreme Court weighs reversing Roe and lawmakers here push to protect and expand access to abortion.
The anti-abortion demonstration outside the Capitol and two abortion rights bills pending inside point to a belief on both sides that Connecticut will not be a bystander, whatever the court decides before its term ends in June.
Court observers widely concluded after oral arguments in December in a Mississippi abortion case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, that Roe was certain to be amended if not reversed by the court’s 6-3 conservative majority.
Conventional wisdom once was that Connecticut would be unaffected by a reversal of Roe, which would erase the legal prohibition of state laws barring abortion prior to fetal viability, generally 23 or 24 weeks.
But the two bills pending in committees address newer concerns: Would states where abortion remains legal have the capacity to serve women from states where it is banned? And could restrictions from banned states reach into Connecticut?
The latter question turns on the premise that states banning abortion might pursue legal actions against residents seeking abortions in other states, as well as the clinicians performing them by means of medical procedures or drugs.
“My stance is that it is a question that is perfectly timed,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee. “It is ripe.”
The proposed bill pending in Winfield’s committee, House Bill 5414, essentially would bar Connecticut officials from assisting other states in enforcing bans on their residents from getting an abortion in a state where it is legal.
Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, the vice chair of Judiciary and the co-chair of a new Reproductive Rights Caucus, said the legal theory behind out-of-state abortion bans affecting Connecticut is not far-fetched.
“I think people are realizing how endangered these rights are, not only in the states where they would be banned but across the country, even in states like Connecticut, where they’re expressly legally permitted,” Blumenthal said. “And it’s an urgent problem that needs to be addressed.”
A trio of law professors, authors of an article set to be published in the Columbia Law Review, told the committee in written testimony that once Roe and the viability standard disappears, the legal battle over abortion will set states against each other.
“Based on our expertise, we strongly believe that this risk will intensify in the coming years, as states seek to ban abortion not only in their borders but also when their residents seek abortion care in other states, such as in Connecticut,” wrote David S. Cohen, Greer Donley and Rachel Rebouché.
Critics questioned the bill’s constitutionality at a public hearing, given that it would place Connecticut courts in a position of refusing to honor subpoenas for records and testimony in civil cases or even barring the governor from signing an extradition request in a criminal proceeding.
“Connecticut cannot and should not give sanctuary to criminals who violate other state’s laws. We would certainly not appreciate it if other states tried to give sanctuary to criminals violating Connecticut law,” Paul E. Knag, a Murtha Cullina partner, said in written testimony.
“This bill is an attempt to wage lawfare between states,” complained Christopher Healy, who represents the Catholic bishops as the executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Public Affairs Conference.
There also is a proposed constitutional amendment asserting abortion as a constitutional right in Connecticut. No action is expected on that measure.
On Wednesday, Healy will be master of ceremonies at the March for Life rally, whose speakers will include Archbishop Leonard Blair of the Hartford Archdiocese and Jeanne F. Mancini, the president of March for Life Education and Defense Fund.
March for Life’s first appearance in Connecticut at such a pivotal time is partly happenstance: The noontime rally, followed by a march around Bushnell Park, had been scheduled for April 2020 then was postponed due to COVID-19.
“So this year, of course, we are very excited about the Dobbs, Miss., case that’s facing the Supreme Court and the possibility of the question of pro-life legislation returning to the states,” Mancini said. “So certainly our spirits are enthusiastic as we head into this year.”
Mancini said that bringing March for Life, a staple of demonstrations in Washington, to a state like Connecticut was an attempt to “buoy the spirits of the grassroots in the states to ultimately build a culture of life.”
House Bill 5261, another pending abortion bill, would allow advanced-practice clinicians to perform abortions by suction, also known as vacuum aspiration. It is the most common method of in-clinic abortions and can be performed by clinicians other than doctors in more than a dozen other states.
Rep. Jillian Gilchrest, D-West Hartford, vice chair of the Public Health Committee and the other co-chair of the Reproductive Rights Caucus, said there already can be a wait of 12 days to get an aspiration abortion in Connecticut, and demand is expected to grow if Roe is overturned and the state becomes a destination for women seeking legal abortions.
Gilchrest spoke matter-of-factly about the inevitable demise of Roe, given the court’s 6-3 conservative majority and its refusal to hear a challenge of a Texas law that flew in the face of Roe. It prohibits abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, generally at six weeks.
“I’m an optimist. I’ve been at this for quite a while,” said Gilchrest, a former executive director of the abortion rights group, NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut. “Yet for me, the writing is on the wall.”