Sen. Patricia Billie Miller, D-Stamford, saw racism in the roots of reproductive rights. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

A state Senate debate over an abortion bill exploded Friday night into an emotional denunciation of the influence of race and racism over the family planning movement and its founder, Margaret Sanger.

Ultimately, the Senate gave final passage, just before midnight, to legislation that will provide a legal “safe harbor” to women from states with restrictive abortion laws who get abortions in Connecticut, as well as the clinicians who provide them. 

But a portion of the bill that expands who can perform first-trimester abortions ignited an extraordinarily raw debate driven by the two Black women in the Senate, Marilyn Moore of Bridgeport and Patricia Billie Miller of Stamford.

They are Democrats generally deemed to be supporters of reproductive rights, but each said they were inspired by Rep. Treneé McGee, D-West Haven, a young Black woman opposed to abortion. Her fiery opposition to the bill in the House provided the template for Miller and Moore.

“Rep. McGee, she touched a vein I cannot close,” Miller said. “She touched a vein that takes me back.”

“I am so torn. My heart is racing. I feel such a heaviness on this subject,” said Moore, a former Planned Parenthood employee.

Historians are hardly unanimous in their assessment of Sanger’s racial history and the significance of her references to eugenics in speeches and writing, while McGee, Miller and Moore evinced little doubt.

“This is about racism. Sorry,” said Miller, choked with emotion. “It is about racism, and that’s how I feel.”

Moore said her friends at Planned Parenthood must acknowledge its past.

“Planned Parenthood will need to step up and say, ‘This is true. We did this, and we’re going to do better.’ And until I hear that, I still feel we’re dealing with medical apartheid,” Moore said.

The mood was tense and uncertain Friday once Miller attacked Sanger and complimented McGee, whose arrival after winning a special election in December caused a buzz among Democrats committed to reproductive rights.

Miller and Moore focused their concern on the portion of the bill allowing advanced-practice clinicians such as A.P.R.N.s and physician assistants 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 14 other states. Moore questioned whether the advanced practitioners would offer substandard care.

Martin Luther King Jr. took a decidedly different view of Sanger, asserting “a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts.” He accepted an award from Planned Parenthood in 1966.

The bill passed on a vote of 25-9, with Moore, Miller and Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bridgeport, joining six Republicans in opposition. 

Republicans Kevin Witkos of Canton, Heather Somers of Groton, Tony Hwang of Fairfield and Paul Cicarella of North Haven joined 21 Democrats in support.

Coming as the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing restrictions on abortion, proponents had viewed passage as an easy affirmation of Connecticut’s commitment to abortion rights while increasing access to early-term abortions at clinics. Gov. Ned Lamont had urged passage and promised his quick signature.

It had passed the House on an 87-60 vote that blurred party lines.

Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, the vice chair of the Judiciary Committee and a co-founder of a new reproductive rights caucus, huddled during the debate with allies on the issue, Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, and Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham.

Of the nine women in the Senate, Miller and Moore were the only two votes against the bill. Five of the other seven offered rebuttals, one from Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, who disclosed her own abortion.

From left, Sen. Gary Winfield, Rep. Matt Blumenthal and Sen. Mae Flexer huddle during the abortion debate. All three were proponents. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

As a 25-year-old newlywed, Kushner became pregnant, only to learn that a prescribed medication could cause birth defects.

Kushner said systemic racism is a societal ill she always is eager to address, but the bill was about protecting the rights of women.

“I think voting no on this bill doesn’t address systemic racism, either,” Kushner said.

Miller left the chamber after casting her vote, not waiting to see the result.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.