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Vermont to vote on whether to amend the state's constitution to protect abortion

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Voters in California and Vermont will have a big say on abortion in their states this November. They'll get to decide whether to amend their state Constitutions to protect the right to an abortion. Vermont was the first state in the country to get such an amendment on the ballot, and others could soon follow. Vermont Public's Mikaela Lefrak reports.

MIKAELA LEFRAK, BYLINE: A couple hours after the Supreme Court overturned Roe, Svetlana Zhexembeyeva was still working through her emotions. She lives in Barre, Vt.

SVETLANA ZHEXEMBEYEVA: I think it's hard to process. It'll take me a while. But I think, as a new American, I think this is very disheartening.

LEFRAK: And are you aware of Vermont's constitutional amendment that they're trying to get passed?

ZHEXEMBEYEVA: Yeah. Yes. Yes, of course. Like, recently I talked to somebody who said that maybe, you know, our state will become this haven for people, you know, escaping.

LEFRAK: A haven for people who want an abortion but can't get one in their own state. The constitutional amendment would fully protect, quote-unquote, "reproductive liberty." Zhexembeyeva plans to vote for it. Vermont lawmakers began crafting the amendment more than three years ago. State Representative Ann Pugh helped lead the effort.

ANN PUGH: Vermont law was silent on abortion. Looking at what was happening nationally, we needed to act now.

LEFRAK: After President Donald Trump appointed conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Pugh and her colleagues passed a law protecting abortion access in Vermont. State lawmakers also began the long process of amending the state Constitution. The amendment had to be approved by both the House and Senate twice. The final step comes this November, when Vermonters will vote on it during the general election. University of Vermont political science professor Lisa Holmes.

LISA HOLMES: The Vermont Constitution does not get amended for simple or transient sort of reasons. There's got to be a lot of support and prolonged support.

LEFRAK: The support it needs seems to be there. According to a 2022 poll by Vermont Public, about two-thirds of Vermonters support the amendment. But opponents are still gearing up for a fight. Matthew Strong runs Vermonters for Good Government, a new organization that wants Vermonters to vote no.

MATTHEW STRONG: It highlights a real David-and-Goliath situation.

LEFRAK: Strong is planning a grassroots campaign against the amendment. His fundraising efforts have been modest so far.

STRONG: We do have a bunch of Vermonters who are donating anywhere from a dollar to a couple hundred dollars. We're trying to get national folks. But we don't have those connections yet.

LEFRAK: The Vermont Right to Life Committee and other local anti-abortion groups are in the same boat. Meanwhile, proponents of abortion access are receiving national support. Lucy Leriche is a vice president at Planned Parenthood Northern New England.

LUCY LERICHE: The Planned Parenthood national office has defined this campaign as a must win for the movement.

LEFRAK: She expects fundraising on both sides to pick up over the summer. Matthew Dickinson is a Middlebury College political science professor and a close observer of Vermont politics. He says even though Vermont is small, it's influenced national politics before, like with the state's early decision to allow same-sex marriage.

MATTHEW DICKINSON: It has been in the vanguard of pushing social policies in a liberal direction. The impact of this decision isn't measured simply on the number of abortions but the broader message it sends.

LEFRAK: He says activists in other states, on both sides of this issue, will be watching how Vermonters vote on abortion rights this fall. For NPR News, I'm Mikaela Lefrak in Burlington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mikaela Lefrak