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Murphy renews efforts to expand access to abortion in New Jersey

TRENTON, N.J. — Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday renewed his efforts to further expand access to abortion in New Jersey, proposing insurance mandates to eliminate out-of-pocket costs and a state law codifying who can perform the procedure — two measures he previously supported but were excluded from legislation he signed into law earlier this year.

Murphy, a Democrat, also called on the Legislature to pass two other measures as the U.S. Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. One would legally protect providers and patients who come to New Jersey for abortion care from states that “outlaw abortion.” The other would create a “reproductive health access fund” to provide training grants for prospective abortion providers and finance security for abortion centers, and would provide “reproductive health care services” to those who can’t afford it.

Murphy said it was “to be determined” how much money would be in the fund. It was not immediately clear how many would benefit from the money.

“We know that without access, rights mean nothing,” the governor said during an event at his office in Trenton, surrounded by lawmakers, abortion providers and others.

In addition, Murphy declared New Jersey would not cooperate with out-of-state investigations into abortion providers or anyone involved with the procedure, a reference to laws in red states that have created strict penalties for those seeking an abortion.

“No one should be criminalized for getting the care they need,” Murphy said. “Abortion is health care and health care decisions should be left up to the individual. Your body belongs to you.”

Even with the Supreme Court apparently ready to overturn Roe, getting such a package through the Democratic-controlled New Jersey Legislature will likely be difficult. In the Assembly, for instance, the compromise abortion bill Murphy signed in January passed with 45 votes last session, although eight Democrats either abstained or did not vote. Democrats lost six seats in the chamber in November’s election, further complicating efforts to pass abortion legislation.

In a joint statement, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and Senate President Nick Scutari said they “fundamentally support a woman’s right to choose,” citing the compromise legislation passed in January. The two leaders promised to “continue working to protect access and ensure no woman is stripped of her right to choose,” but made no comment of Murphy’s new proposals.

The statement did not indicate whether they would support the governor’s proposals.

Murphy did not respond specifically to the leaders’ statement, saying only that the three “had a good conversation yesterday.”

“We’ve been in a lot of conversations with with legislators, including leadership, and we shall see where this goes,” he said.

The legislation Murphy signed in January, the Freedom of Reproductive Choice Act, enshrined existing case law into state statute and mandated a study by the Department of Banking and Insurance that could lead to some degree of mandatory insurance coverage for abortions, although many state-regulated plans already offer it.

That legislation excluded the outright insurance mandate with no out-of-pocket costs and did not include an expanded list of which medical providers can perform abortions. Separately, the state Board of Medical Examiners enacted rules that allowed advanced practice nurses, certified midwives and physician assistants to perform certain first trimester abortions, which the legislation sought to do, although that rule is not written into state statute.

“The sense from leadership is [that] we’ve done what we’ve needed to do,” one legislative person said before Murphy’s announcement. “We protected [abortion] rights regardless of what the Supreme Court does. Murphy is going to turn this into a political liability by going way farther than what your average New Jersey voter is comfortable with.”

Two people also expressed frustration that Murphy did not communicate with the Legislature in advance of his announcement.

“We’re starting with press conferences and sound bites, and the policy may come at some point later, and nobody quite knows what that is yet,” one of the people said before Murphy’s announcement. “It’s how you earn headlines and get your face on the Samantha Bee show and Rachel Maddow.”

Senate Republican Minority Leader Steve Oroho pushed back against Murphy’s proposals.

“Governor Murphy’s radical proposal calls for free abortions with no limits right up to birth, and he wants struggling New Jersey families to pay for abortions for everyone through even higher taxes and health care premiums,” Oroho said in a statement issued as Murphy was still speaking.

Murphy’s announcement comes as other blue states act on abortion measures in anticipation of the possible overturning of Roe. In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul recently set aside $35 million for abortion providers, while other states such as California are proposing constitutional amendments to guarantee abortion access.

Katherine Landergan contributed to this report.