NEWFANE — We, the voters of Vermont, have two proposed constitutional changes on the November ballot. One clarifies language already in the Constitution about slavery; the other obfuscates and adds new language that is reported to be about abortion but as it reads is more about the State determining individuals' life choices.
The right to an abortion is already the law of Vermont. The language of the existing law reads, “The State of Vermont recognizes the fundamental right of every individual who becomes pregnant to choose to carry a pregnancy to term, to give birth to a child, or to have an abortion.” That's quite clear. Individual becomes pregnant, individual chooses how to proceed, State respects individual's choice. It's legal to get an abortion in Vermont now, and the state can't interfere with that right.
The proposed constitutional amendment that voters will face this Nov. 8 - Article 22, or Proposal 5 - 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.”
This is a meandering and nearly incomprehensible statement. Abortion isn't even mentioned, but the State's right to determine a citizen's life course is.
And that is frightening.
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Under what possible circumstances could there be a “compelling State interest” to interfere with “an individual's personal reproductive autonomy” or an individual's “dignity to determine one's own life course”?
Will the State suddenly show up and say that a certain baby should or shouldn't be born or that certain people should or shouldn't be allowed to reproduce? Or that a certain individual is not able to determine their own life course, so the State will put them in an institution?
Oh, wait - that already happened.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the State tried to “determine a better life course” for many and to “breed a better Vermont” by sterilizing and institutionalizing “delinquents, dependents and defectives”, that's a quote from Act Number 174 of 1931, the “Act for Human Betterment through Voluntary Sterilization” when Vermont's legislature decided there was a compelling State interest to take children from poor and native parents, lock “mentally defective people” in institutions, reduce the number of French-Canadians, and force sterilization on those the State had deemed unworthy of having children - interfering with reproductive autonomy.
In 2021, the Legislature apologized for the 1931 law, but in an irony clearly lost on them, immediately started crafting this new Constitutional proposal.
What is up with the Vermont Legislature wanting to control people's lives, reproduction, and liberty? What if a future Legislature decided that no one earning less than a certain amount should be allowed to have a child? Or that one child per family should be plenty, what with dwindling natural resources, the housing shortage, the teacher shortage, climate change, etc.?
French-Canadians and Indigenous people were considered a scourge in 1931 (a little more than 90 years ago). What if the Legislature of the future decided that they'd achieve equity by stopping the reproduction of one ethic group or hyper-breeding another ethnic group?
The State could decide that children with special needs or birth defects would be a drag on society and should be culled before birth; in 1931, special needs adults were sterilized so they wouldn't have more “defective” offspring.
All of those horrible scenarios would be permissible if this amendment passes.
My body, my choice? Not with this amendment.
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Our state's Constitution is a big deal. That's why potential changes have to go through a rigorous process and be approved by the citizens of the state. Any amendments to it should be well thought out, be clearly written, and should right a wrong (such as the other proposed amendment on the ballot this November, which says “slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.” Clear as a bell.
The current language (found in Article 1 of our Constitution) allows for slavery “bound by the person's own consent” or “bound by the law for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs or the like.”
The existing language allows for a compelling State interest in servitude and an idea of “voluntary slavery” which is as free a choice as “voluntary sterilization.”
The proposed amendment on slavery is clearly written, says what it means, and grants more liberty to individuals. Any voter reading it understands it. That's what an amendment should look like. Imagine if the slavery amendment didn't mention the word slavery or included the words “unless justified by a compelling State interest.”
No matter what you think about abortion, you should vote against Article 22.