Ginny Lyons
Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, explains a constitutional amendment affirming a person’s right to reproductive freedom at the Statehouse in Montpelier in 2019. Lyons spearheaded a sweeping bill this year that seeks to further strengthen those protections. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

In a preliminary vote on Thursday, the Vermont Senate advanced a sweeping bill that seeks to further strengthen the state’s existing protections to reproductive health care access, including abortion and gender-affirming care.

Senators approved the measure, S.37, on a voice vote and are expected to cast a final vote Friday, after which it would move to the House for consideration. 

Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden Southeast, who spearheaded the bill, told her colleagues on the floor Thursday it is a direct response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision issued last summer, in which the court’s conservative majority struck down nationwide abortion access protections. Following the high court’s decision, the issue was put to individual states to decide, and dozens of states have outlawed or severely restricted access to abortion.

“For nearly 50 years, our state and other states have lived under Roe v. Wade, and it’s allowed … for health care professionals to provide reproductive care for both men and women,” Lyons said on the Senate floor. “The Dobbs decision last summer upended our national understanding of reproductive autonomy.”

Much of S.37 focuses on offering protections to Vermont doctors, preventing them from facing professional repercussions — such as medical malpractice insurance premium hikes or the suspension of medical licenses — when they provide reproductive care within the state. 

The bill also takes aim at so-called crisis pregnancy centers, which are non-medical facilities that advertise to pregnant patients who may be considering an abortion. Such facilities do not offer abortions and seek to actively dissuade patients from terminating a pregnancy. If signed into law, S.37 would make such facilities subject to Vermont’s consumer protection and false advertising laws.

Advocates for crisis pregnancy centers and, more broadly, opponents of abortion access have fought hard against S.37, saying the bill would infringe upon private facilities’ free speech rights. But S.37 proponents, including Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, say crisis pregnancy centers are deceptive in their advertising practices and should be honest with patients about their anti-abortion views.

S.37 goes hand-in-hand with the House’s H.89, a companion bill that seeks to offer legal “shield” protections to Vermont doctors who provide reproductive health care within the state, including to patients who travel to Vermont from a state in which reproductive procedures are outlawed or difficult to access. 

H.89, which passed the House last month and is now under consideration in the Senate, not only would protect Vermont doctors from out-of-state arrests, subpoenas and extradition, but also would kneecap out-of-state investigations of patients who travel to Vermont. Still, H.89’s protections would largely stop at Vermont’s borders.

The Senate’s preliminary approval of S.37 came just one day after a federal judge in Texas heard arguments in a legal challenge that could ultimately strike down the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s long-standing approval of mifepristone, one of two drugs often used in medication-induced abortions. More than half of all abortions nationwide are conducted using medication.

Should U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk side with the conservative group Alliance Defending Freedom, which brought the suit, access to medication-induced abortion could be threatened not just in Texas, but nationwide. 

Lyons referred to the case during her floor speech Thursday.

“Every day, we read about another court case that chastises an OB-GYN physician in one state for treating a 10-year-old in another state, a rape victim,” Lyons said. “Or we read about the unfathomable Texas laws that allow any citizen to begin an investigation into any woman who seeks abortion services. Or we read about laws that prevent families from seeking gender-affirming care when a child has gender dysphoria. We read about efforts to eliminate emergency contraception.”

In the months following Roe v. Wade’s demise, Lyons said, “The result has been absolutely turbulent and sometimes terrifying. It’s an upheaval of our social fabric across our country.”

VTDigger's political reporter.