The New Jersey State House. Hal Brown photo
The New Jersey State House. Hal Brown photo
In a joint statement issued Jan. 11, New Jersey’s Catholic bishops, including Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., spoke out in unequivocal condemnation of The Freedom of Reproductive Choice Act, S49/A6260, which was passed with extraordinary haste by the State Senate and Assembly Jan. 10. Governor Phil Murphy signed the bill into law during a Jan.13 ceremony in Teaneck. 

A replacement for the rejected Reproductive Freedom Act of October 2020, S49/A6260 was passed by the State Senate 23-15 and by the General Assembly 46-22 with 8 abstentions.

Although abortion has long been legal and accessible in New Jersey, the new bill codifies it as constitutionally protected law, making any proposed law to limit or outlaw abortions null. The bill’s proponents have argued that it protects abortion rights in the state if the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade were overturned.

“Any law, rule, regulation, ordinance, or order, in effect on or adopted after the effective date of this act, that is determined to have the effect of limiting the constitutional right to freedom of reproductive choice and that does not conform with the provisions and the express or implied purposes of this act, shall be deemed invalid and shall have no force or effect,” the bill states.

In their letter, the bishops express their “profound disappointment and deep concern about the passage of [the bill], which codifies into state law an individual’s right to an abortion, including late-term abortions. This law departs from the fundamental Catholic teaching that all life is sacred from conception to natural death.

“Even more distressing is that the legal and ethical calculus that underlies this new legislation absolutely and forthrightly extinguishes the human and moral identity of the unborn child,” the bishops’ statement continued. “Perhaps the legislators who rushed through this Act in the waning moments of their terms did not want citizens to understand fully its inhuman and lethal consequences.

In the Diocese of Trenton, Bishop O’Connell responded to the bill’s passage by immediately writing to Gov. Murphy urging him not to sign the bill.  “We are not talking about choice or even freedom here,” the Bishop wrote.  “Abortion is the direct and intentional taking of innocent human life. You and I both know that as do the sponsors of this legislation.”  

Only five days had passed between the introduction and passing of S49/A6260 – and yet the response of constituents was substantial. Upon learning of the bill’s release out of committees, the New Jersey Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops, immediately issued an action alert and information for parish announcements over the Jan. 8-9 weekend urging recipients to contact their legislative representatives to ask for a “no” vote. The efforts prompted some 11,000 messages to legislators sent through the NJCC web portal, 3,777 of which were from Catholics in the Diocese of Trenton. The bishops lent their voices to the outcry via an earlier joint statement posted Jan. 7. (Click here to read.) 

While some changes were made from the original RFA legislation in 2020, James J. King, executive director of the NJCC, emphasized that S49/A6260 “differs little from the RFA and includes provisions that remove all barriers to abortion services.” He also expressed concern over bill’s introduction and speed, saying, “we were left with little time to offer our input and feedback.”

The bill’s attempt to invalidate laws that would restrict the right to an abortion – both laws in place and those that might be proposed – make its wide-sweeping reach of great concern to pro-life advocates. That includes any future attempts to pass laws on parental notification, bans on late-term abortion and even laws currently upheld as valid by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The bishops pointed in their statement to abortion alternatives already in place, through the support of Catholic and other social service agencies for all stages of life.

“For our part, the Catholic Church is committed to broadening and increasing awareness about the abundant resources and programs we offer that include life-affirming health and prenatal care, emotional support, assistance in bearing and raising her child, and basic needs such as housing, food, and clothing to pregnant mothers seeking or considering alternatives to abortion.”

Although the original Reproductive Freedom Act of October 2020 did not pass, some state abortion restrictions have already been lifted and went into effect Dec. 6, 2021. The New Jersey State Board of Medical Examiners voted unanimously in October 2021 to allow non-physicians – including advanced practice nurses, physician assistants, certified nurse midwives and certified midwives – to provide first trimester aspiration abortions.

Prior to that vote, New Jersey law required that abortion services after the 14 gestational weeks (a more complicated procedure) take place only in a licensed hospital setting. Those offering services after week 18 were required to have admitting and surgical privileges at a nearby hospital.

The state law also had a ban that outlaws abortion procedures as early as 12 weeks (N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:65A-5 to 2A:65A-7 (Enacted 1997)). But a court held that the ban was unconstitutional and issued a permanent injunction that prohibits its reinforcement. With S49/A6260 in place, any ban on abortions at any stage would be obliterated.

“We have failed as a society when a response to any pregnancy is fear rather than joy,” the bishops joint letter states. “Sadly, too often this fear is born out of the mother’s uncertainty (that) she will not be able to provide for herself and her child the resources necessary to live a flourishing life. We must do better. Therefore, we urge all Catholics and people of good will to actively participate in breaking down the economic, employment, social, racial, and emotional barriers that lead mothers into thinking that abortion is a better option than life.”