In candidates’ fight over abortion, issue gets muddled

Murphy, Ciattarelli launch attacks over abortion rights, state laws in first debate
Credit: (Screengrab from WABC)
Sept. 28, 2021: Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, left, and Republican Party challenger Jack Ciattarelli during their first gubernatorial debate.

Despite being legal for almost a half-century, abortion continues to be a contentious issue even in a reliably Democratic state like New Jersey, where it  became a flashpoint in a debate between incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy and his Republican challenger, Jack Ciattarelli.

Murphy and Ciattarelli both took on the other’s record on the state’s abortion laws and questioned the other’s support for abortion rights during a debate Tuesday.

Some of the statements they made beg for clarification.

The most explosive charges were made by Ciattarelli, a former assemblyman from Somerset County, who tried to portray Murphy as supporting what he described as a radical agenda by backing the Reproductive Freedom Act (S-3030/A-4848) pending in the Legislature. But the legislation seeks to codify what is already permitted in New Jersey, as well as make it easier and less expensive for women seeking abortions.

In answer to a question, Ciattarelli said he does not support the Texas law essentially banning abortion after six weeks and continued, saying, “I’ll tell you what else I consider a form of extremism, the bill that he (Murphy) wants on his desk that his own Democratic leadership won’t post. It’s a bill that would allow abortion in months seven, eight and nine, as performed by somebody other than an MD … but I don’t support Gov. Murphy’s position on abortion, as well. I mean, who does that? Abortion in months seven, eight and nine, as performed by somebody other than an MD? That’s not New Jersey.”

Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), one of the sponsors of the bill, said there is nothing extreme about it.

“We have to make sure that what happened in Texas never happens here,” he said, adding he is “very hopeful” that the measure will begin moving through the Legislature once the houses resume their session, which is not expected to occur until after the election.

New Jersey is one of seven states, plus the District of Columbia, that does not place any time restrictions on how far along in her pregnancy a woman can still have an abortion. That means the procedure could be performed during the last trimester. Those are rare — the CDC reported only 1% of all abortions in the nation in 2018 occurred at or after 21 weeks, which is late in the sixth month — and most are due to fetal abnormalities not discovered earlier or conditions like preeclampsia that could endanger the life of the mother.

“During the debate and throughout his campaign, Jack Ciattarelli has parroted misinformation about abortion later in pregnancy, using language that is utilized by people who want to see abortion made illegal outright,” said Kaitlyn Wojtowicz, vice president of public affairs for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey, which has endorsed Murphy and backs the bill. “The Reproductive Freedom Act explicitly ensures New Jerseyans have the right to make their own personal reproductive health care decisions.”

Allowing late-term abortions

The legislation, which has yet to have a committee hearing, would allow someone who is not a medical doctor to perform an abortion, but only if they were another licensed health care professional, including an advanced practice nurse, physician assistant, certified midwife or certified nurse midwife. All of these can now provide at least some level of care, sometimes including delivery, to pregnant women. According to Planned Parenthood, 12 states allow advanced practice clinicians to perform at least some abortions.

Among several other provisions, the legislation would eliminate current restrictions on the locations where abortions could be performed;  abortions after the 14th week may now be performed only in a licensed hospital or ambulatory care facility. It would also require private insurance coverage for abortions and birth control with no out-of-pocket costs to ensure that those with low incomes would not be denied access, although there would be an exception for religious employers.

“A woman’s right to choose, needs to be protected at all costs,” Murphy said during the debate in defending his support of the bill. “Her reproductive freedom, needs to be protected at all costs. And that is a decision between a woman and her doctor, period.”

Ciattarelli defends his stand

“I have never advocated for the repeal or overturn Roe v. Wade, and I’ve never not advocated for what is right to choose,” Ciattarelli said in describing his position on abortion. “What I have advocated for things like parental notification. I think most parents feel if their 15-year-old daughter was pregnant, they’d want to know.”

New Jersey has a law on the books requiring a doctor to notify a parent at least 48 hours before performing an abortion on a minor, but it is unenforceable because the state Supreme Court struck down that law 21 years ago for violating the state Constitution’s privacy and equal-protection guarantees.

What Ciattarelli did not say during the debate is that he would limit abortions. His campaign website states that Ciattarelli backs the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act (S-429/A-2228). That bill would prohibit abortions once at 20 weeks or more of pregnancy, except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother, although Ciattarelli’s website states the bill would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks.

Ciattarelli acknowledged having voted six times against Democratic-sponsored legislation to provide about $7.5 million for family-planning services to Planned Parenthood and other organizations that former GOP Gov. Chris Christie cut from the state budget. Murphy signed a law restoring that money soon after taking office in 2018.

In defending his votes, Ciattarelli said, “Thousands of women depend on Planned Parenthood for women’s health, and I support women’s health. My position is this: Why do we send all the money to an agency that advocates for abortion? There are a number of agencies across New Jersey that provide women’s health, that do not advocate for abortion, let’s send money to both.”

The bills Ciattarelli opposed and the law Murphy ultimately signed all expressly prohibit the use of the state funding for abortions.

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