New Jersey’s Reproductive Freedom Act and Reproductive Rights in the Age of the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Allison Wrubel & Courteney Leinonen
As we are at the end of Women’s Herstory Month, we must continue discussions on reproductive freedom and making progress towards ensuring that reproductive rights are human rights. In fall 2020, New Jersey introduced the Reproductive Freedom Act to take steps to ensure that reproductive rights are sustained. This bill asserts that “[a]ccess to safe and legal abortion care is essential to women’s health, autonomy, and privacy and is central to the ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the United States and the State of New Jersey.” Access to safe reproductive healthcare and the freedom over one’s body is greatly at risk, and this has become even clearer during this COVID-19 pandemic—for all those who seek reproductive healthcare—particularly in New Jersey.
The Reproductive Freedom Act expands access to healthcare, enabling broader access to contraceptives, reproductive care, abortions, and pregnancy-related care for all who seek these services. This legislation safeguards the reproductive rights of all New Jerseyans. It codifies the right to control one’s own reproductive rights and bodies. Kaitlyn Wojtowicz, the Vice President of Public Affairs of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey, purports that the “The Reproductive Freedom Act will ensure that everyone — including people of color, people in low-income communities, immigrants, the uninsured and other marginalized groups — can make their own personal medical decisions with dignity.” NGOs and other organizations such as the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute (NJHCQI) aid these efforts, providing tool kits, informative websites, and educational programs. The NJHCQI reports that as of March 2020, over 430,000 New Jersey women lived in “contraceptive deserts'' lacking reasonable access to healthcare centers that provide a variety of effective contraceptive methods. For women of color, immigrants, minorities, and marginalized communities, the act would serve as a counteractive measure in combating the disparity in access to resources and care that has been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic.
New Jersey’s marginalized communities have been deeply impacted by healthcare disparities. Brittany Lee, policy associate at the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute expands on the disparity stating, “the barriers to contraceptive care, like insurance coverage and out-of-pocket costs, as well as childcare and time off of work needed to attend doctor's appointments, are really all exacerbated by COVID-19.” Damali Campbell Oparaji, provides first-hand insight on the benefits that the Reproductive Freedom Act poses for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities as the access to the care that they deserve often remains inaccessible or restricted. Moreover, the Guttmacher institute found significant disparities showing that during the pandemic 46 percent of queer women have experienced barriers to reproductive healthcare compared to 31 percent of straight women. The Reproductive Freedom Act combats these inequalities, removing financial barriers and unnecessary regulations that prevent healthcare access. The act allows non-physicians to perform abortions; funds Planned Parenthood with taxpayer money; and requires that insurance companies cover safe and legal abortion care and contraceptives. The bill’s provisions for broader accessibility to affordable and quality reproductive healthcare would help combat underlying inequalities that women of color, immigrants, minorities, and marginalized communities face especially during the pandemic.
The proposal for the Reproductive Freedom Act and the work of state organizations sets New Jersey apart from other states where access to abortions is severely restricted. The pandemic’s impact on women’s sexual and reproductive rights has encouraged the UN as well as governments globally and domestically to reassess their policies. The United States rescinded the global gag rule, which was a policy implemented in 1984 prohibiting non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from receiving funding or global health assistance from the U.S. and providing access to contraception and reproductive healthcare, HIV/AIDS testing, abortion referrals, or advocating for the reform of reproductive healthcare legislation. UN Secretary General Guterres in support of the US policy reversal stated, “This Policy has led to the defunding not only of reproductive health services globally but also in recent years to broader health services, an issue which in the midst of the current pandemic has been shown to be central to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)”. The global gag rule was a setback on the worldwide advancement of women’s reproductive rights and health, infringing on their human rights and the achievement of SDG 3 (Good Health), as access to the healthcare they need was restricted by inhibiting the functioning of NGOs. The reversal of the implementation of the global gag rule, the restoration of UN Population Fund (UNFPA)’s funding, and the proposed Reproductive Freedom Act indicate that the US and New Jersey specifically understand that women’s rights matter and are taking the provision of good healthcare, including reproductive healthcare more seriously.
Reproductive rights is closely tied to global human rights. According to the UN Women’s report “From Insight to Action: Gender Equality in the Wake of COVID-19,” surveys show that in “4 out of 10 countries in Europe and Central Asia, at least half of women in need of family planning services have experienced major difficulty accessing them since the pandemic began.” In Asia and the Pacific, 60 percent of women report difficulty in seeing a doctor because the pandemic. In the UN’s April 2020 report, it explicitly states a concern that in Latin America and the Caribbean “an additional 18 million women will lose regular access to modern contraceptives, given the current context of COVID-19 pandemics.” The report provides a recommendation to states indicating they “[m]ake provisions for standard health services to be continued, especially for sexual and reproductive health care.” The impact of not having sexual and reproductive health had negative impacts on women during this pandemic. We have witnessed an increase in maternal deaths and have seen a subsequent regression in achieving the SDGs. According to the UN Population Fund, as of March 2021, an estimated 12 million have had disruptions in their family planning services due to COVID-19 resulting in 1.4 million unintended pregnancies. The UN Population Fund continues its insistence that family planning is a “human rights concern.”
Overall, the Reproductive Freedom Act helps counteract the challenges posed to accessing affordable, safe, and quality healthcare that women, immigrants, and BIPOC communities face and that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill combats inequalities, universally providing access to care regardless of race, socio-economic status, and insurance coverage. The increased provision of healthcare, reproductive care, and contraceptives will decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies as people will be better educated and have access to more effective contraceptive methods and overall care. In the height of the pandemic, 27 percent of people in New Jersey used the least effective forms of contraception. With the Reproductive Freedom Act, “my body, my choice” is no longer just a slogan, but codified into law enabling women of all backgrounds to have better healthcare access, control over their bodies, and the ability to afford the care they deserve.