Government & Politics

Vermont becomes the 1st state to enshrine abortion rights in its constitution

Protesters hold up signs advocating for abortion access during a reproductive rights rally in front of the Statehouse in Montpelier in May. File photo by Natalie Williams/VTDigger

Updated Wednesday, Nov. 9, at, 4:13 a.m.

Reproductive rights are set to be enshrined in the Vermont Constitution.

With more than 285,000 votes counted early Wednesday morning, "yes" votes for Proposal 5 outnumbered "no" votes 72%-22%, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. Close to 6% left the question blank.

The amendment was widely expected to pass. Poll after poll has shown strong support in Vermont for abortion rights generally as well as for the ballot initiative in question

But that did not stop those campaigning for and against the measure from pulling out all the stops. A month before Election Day, well over $1 million had already been spent by both sides. That’s more than was spent in any other statewide race, federal contests aside.

Proponents celebrated the measure’s passage. The Vermont for Reproductive Liberty Ballot Committee, which campaigned for the amendment, said in a message to supporters that “Vermont voters made history tonight.”

“Vermonters support reproductive freedom in all four corners of the state,” the committee said, “and they believe that our reproductive decisions are ours to make without interference from politicians.”

A coalition of progressive groups worked to pass the amendment under the ballot committee’s umbrella, including the ACLU of Vermont, the League of Women Voters of Vermont, Alliance for a Better Vermont and Planned Parenthood Vermont Action Fund. 

Lucy Leriche, the vice president of public affairs for the latter group, said its national parent organization had called Vermont’s constitutional amendment “the tip of the spear, and a must win for the movement.”

“We could export inspiration to the rest of the nation by winning in Vermont,” Leriche said in a speech at an event in Burlington Tuesday night celebrating the amendment’s passage. “And here we are.”

James Lyall, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont, similarly heralded the amendment as being on the vanguard of reproductive rights.

“Vermont voters made history today,” he said. “We enshrined in Vermont’s constitutions the strongest abortion rights protections in the country.”

Vermont’s founding document will now be appended with a 22nd article, which will read in full: “That an individual’s right to personal reproductive autonomy is central to the liberty and dignity to determine one’s own life course and shall not be denied or infringed unless justified by a compelling State interest achieved by the least restrictive means.”

The language was written to be inclusive of the right to obtain or refuse an abortion, as well as contraception and sterilization. Because it is silent on the question of post-viability restrictions, opponents sought to characterize the amendment as a radical measure that would guarantee the right to an abortion “up until the moment of birth.” 

Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, a spokesperson for Vermonters for Good Government, the anti-abortion group that opposed the amendment, said the night’s outcome was of little surprise.

“We knew it was an uphill battle to actually be able to successfully share the truth of what the ramifications of this amendment would be,” she said. “I still believe that if Vermonters really understood the implications, they would not have supported it.”

Supporters, including the state’s major health care groups and institutions, argued such rhetoric was divorced from medical reality and made in bad faith, and that abortion should be regulated by health care professionals, not the state.

The amendment had the full-throated support of the Vermont Democratic Party and its most high-profile officeholders and candidates, who, like their national counterparts, sought to make abortion a top issue in this election. At the party’s election night party at Hula in Burlington, the room roared and whooped after party chair Anne Lezak announced the amendment’s passage minutes after 9 p.m.

“So many of you stepped up and knocked on doors and went to rallies and contributed and talked to your neighbors and made sure that people were not bamboozled by the ridiculous falsehoods we heard,” Lezak said. “And this just makes me very, very proud of all of us.”

Republican Gov. Phil Scott said publicly that he would vote for Proposal 5, but he did not actively campaign for or on the issue.

People at a Vermont Democratic Party gathering in Burlington cheer as they learn that Proposal 5 passed on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 8. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

By design, amending Vermont’s constitution is a difficult, multi-year task. It first requires two separate Legislatures to approve the measure, followed by an up-or-down vote by the state’s electorate. 

Vermont lawmakers first introduced Proposal 5 in 2019, fearing that a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court might one day overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that established the right to an abortion nationwide.

The U.S. Supreme Court did, indeed, strike down the nearly 50-year-old precedent in June — mere months after Proposal 5 had cleared its final legislative hurdle. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision essentially sent the question of abortion back to the states, and Vermont’s referendum was one of four reproductive rights-related state constitutional amendments on the ballot on Tuesday.

California and Michigan both had measures before voters that would enshrine reproductive rights in their constitutions, while Kentucky asked its residents whether to make explicit that abortion is not constitutionally protected. In August, Kansas resoundingly rejected a ballot initiative that would have removed abortion protections from the state's constitution.

Abortion is already legal in Vermont, which imposes no legal restrictions on the procedure and instead leaves it up to the medical field to regulate reproductive health care. A law passed in 2019, Act 47, explicitly protects abortion, although a precedent established by the Vermont Supreme Court’s Beecham v. Leahy decision in 1972 had already legalized the medical procedure and nullified a prior ban on the books.

The architects of Proposal 5 wanted to codify reproductive rights in Vermont’s constitution to ensure the strongest possible state-level protections. Nevertheless, they will not be ironclad. A nationwide ban on abortion — which some Republicans in the U.S. Senate have made clear they would like to pursue, should they regain control of the chamber — would likely supersede Vermont’s constitution.

The state constitution has not been amended since 2010, when voters approved a ballot measure allowing 17-year-olds who will turn 18 before the general election to vote in primaries. 

Cristy Beram, whose family finished a gradual pandemic-spurred move from Boston to Quechee this year, said she was compelled to register to vote in Vermont on the eve of Election Day because of Proposal 5.

Standing outside the polls at Hartford High School, the 46-year-old said she wanted to ensure her 11-year-old daughter’s “rights are protected … should she ever need it, or friends, or any other young girl that can’t be protected.”

She described feeling “heartbreak” when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

“Honestly, being a child of the ’80s, I never really thought we were going to have to visit this again,” she said.

Missing out on the latest scoop? Sign up for Final Reading for a rundown on the day's news in the Legislature.


Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is a political reporter for VTDigger, covering Vermont state government, the congressional delegation and elections. She previously covered education for Digger, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.


Send us your thoughts

VTDigger is now accepting letters to the editor. For information about our guidelines, and access to the letter form, please click here.


Recent Stories

Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "Vermont becomes the 1st state to enshrine abortion rights in its cons..."
  • Hidden
  • Hidden
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.