MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate on Friday affirmed earlier votes on a pair of constitutional amendments enshrining the right to reproductive freedom and clarifying the state’s ban on slavery.
The questions now progress to the House, and if the House agrees by simple majority, they will be placed on the 2022 general election ballot.
All four senators from the Bennington and Windham districts voted yes on both questions.
By a vote of 26-4, the Senate voted yes on Proposal 5, which Sen. Ginny Lyons said protects the autonomy of women to make “the most personal decision we make about our lives.”
In a short but powerful speech, Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, told the story of how she attended her first rally for abortion rights with her mother in Washington, D.C., at the age of 12.
“My mother died three weeks ago. So I’m honored today to cast my vote in her memory to give her daughters and her granddaughter and all Vermonters the opportunity to vote for the protection of personal reproductive liberty for generations to come,” Hardy said.
“For centuries, that sometimes brutal and violent control of women’s bodies, reproduction, fertility and sexuality has been used to deny women our independence, and the control of our own life course … to deny us our liberty, and our dignity,” Hardy said. ”Today, we are giving Vermonters the opportunity to vote to affirm the reproductive autonomy and the Liberty and dignity of all Vermonters.”
Proposal 5, which passed both houses of the General Assembly last year, would add a new Article 22 to Chapter 1 of the Vermont Constitution explicitly affirming reproductive autonomy. It reads: “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 proposal was presented and passed in the spring of 2019, as Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court months earlier raised concerns that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision prohibiting undue restrictions on abortion rights may be overturned.
Lyons, D-Chittenden, referred to that uncertainty and to a growing number of states placing restrictions on abortion rights as the reasons why the Senate acted in 2019, and why it should reaffirm that vote.
The no votes were cast by Sens. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland; Russ Ingalls, R-Essex-Orleans; Bobby Starr, D-Essex-Orleans; and Joshua Terenzini, R-Rutland.
Proposal 2 is designed to remove all ambiguity from the state’s constitutional prohibition on slavery. While the Vermont Constitution adopted by the founders of the Vermont Republic in 1777 and re-adopted upon statehood in 1791 prohibited slavery — as the first state in the union to do so, a point of pride for many Vermonters — it expressly did so for adults, and seemingly left room for interpretation.
Article 1 currently reads, in part: “No person born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to beholden by law, to serve any person as a servant, slave or apprentice, after arriving to the age of twenty-one years, unless bound by the person’s own consent, after arriving to such age, or bound by law for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like.”
Proposal 2 would strike that clause completely, and replace it with: “therefore slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.”
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said that though the historical record indicates that the framers of the Vermont Constitution were committed to opposing slavery, the clause they included on age and indentured servitude muddies the issue. Making the ban more explicit recognizes the harm caused by slavery and its legacy to Vermonters of color, White said.
Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, the only no vote, said he could not support the change because it pushes the original language, with both its nobility and its complications, to the side.
“As a student and teacher of history I can say the study of history is full of surprises, full of disappointments, and full of difficult things to understand,” McCormack said.
Removing that original language, he said, is “putting a smiley face on history.”
But Sen. Kesha Ram, D-Chittenden, said no matter how “high-minded, humane or benevolent they seemed for their time,” Vermont’s founders were white men, some of whom held slaves and denied their wives equal rights.
“This is a nation that was founded on enslavement and inhumanity and we must face that ugly truth,” Ram said. She hoped the change would “lift the cloud of Vermont exceptionalism from the eyes of those who think they were somehow not part of that Original Sin of this nation.”
Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, D-Windham, noted that the multi-year process of changing the constitution is in place “to ensure that we do not make changes to our foundational document lightly.”
“[The Vermont Constitution] should not be changed on a whim, but it must also be able to be updated to reflect our shared values and ideals,” she said.
Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, who presided over the debate as Senate President, said she supported the passage of both proposals.
“In parts of this country and the globe we continue to see efforts to halt or roll back women’s reproductive rights,” Gray said. “The Vermont Senate’s passage of Proposal 5 is a critical step in the process of amending our Vermont Constitution to ensure that no matter what happens nationally, the right of every Vermonter to personal reproductive autonomy is protected.”