Health Care

N.J. Democrats consider adding abortion amendment to constitution

New Jersey Democrats are considering asking voters to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution in a state referendum that would coincide with legislative elections next year.
New Jersey Senate Majority Leader M. Teresa Ruiz (D) (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

New Jersey Democrats are considering asking voters to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution in a state referendum that would coincide with legislative elections next year.

In a statement, two top state senators said they hoped to add to momentum abortion rights advocates built in ballot measures in both swing and deep red states in this year’s midterm elections.

“We have been in the forefront on the issue of reproductive rights for women and we believe it is important to the people of New Jersey,” Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D) and Majority Leader M. Teresa Ruiz (D) said in a joint statement to Pluribus News. “Enshrining these rights with a constitutional amendment so they are fully protected is being discussed by leadership. As we saw with the election results, this is a concern that is shared by people in New Jersey and throughout the country.” 

It was not immediately clear how a ballot referendum would advance reproductive rights in New Jersey, a blue state that codified abortion and contraception rights in state law passed in January. 

But abortion has proven a potent issue at the ballot box, leading Democrats across the country to seek new ways to keep it at the top of voters’ minds.

The Democratic advantage on abortion rights is particularly important in New Jersey, where Democrats lost seats in legislative elections in 2021, before the Supreme Court rolled back the half-century right to an abortion. New Jersey is one of four states holding legislative elections next year.

Democrats have defied expectations in elections held since the high court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson was released in June.

“Choice in New Jersey is not going anywhere, but this is a great issue for Democrats,” said Matt Hale, a political science and public affairs professor at Seton Hall University and a member of the Highland Park borough council. “Obviously the fear of losing the right to choose is something that motivates people to get to the polls, particularly women.” 

But some reproductive rights advocates questioned whether the constitutional amendment was necessary and wondered if it could backfire by driving abortion opponents to the polls. 

“I think the move to make a constitutional amendment is nice, but do I think it’s a do or die issue for the women of New Jersey? No, I don’t,” said Loretta Weinberg, who was the Senate majority leader until she retired this year. “They are protected by the original bill, which did what was most important: codified abortion in state law.”  

Weinberg was a lead sponsor of the reproductive rights bill that was signed by Gov. Phil Murphy (D) in January. 

Republicans, meanwhile, were prepared to oppose the measure. 

“While Democrats have not shared their proposal publicly, we should oppose their effort on both moral and scientific grounds if it seeks to enshrine in our constitution the extreme idea that abortion should be legal right up until birth,” Senate Minority Leader Steven Oroho said in a statement. “We should follow the science to determine when an unborn child is viable outside the womb and when that child feels pain. Further, we should not sacrifice women’s safety by allowing non-doctors to perform invasive abortions as Democrats have sought to allow.”

Michigan, Vermont and California voted to enshrine reproductive rights in their states’ constitutions in last week’s elections. In Kentucky, voters rejected a proposal that would have specifically denied the right to an abortion, modeled after a Kansas measure rejected in August. And in Montana, a referendum requiring medical care for infants born alive after an abortion was also rejected last week.