Unconstitutional Abortion Law Finally Repealed

By Steph Machado

Published 03/24 2014 04:58PM

Updated 03/24 2014 08:18PM

BURLINGTON - More than 40 years ago, Dr. Jackson Beecham became the face of a movement to make abortion legal in the state of Vermont.

A UVM Medical School resident at the time, Dr. Beecham was asked to help challenge a law that made performing an abortion a crime. The group challenging the law wanted a "courageous" doctor.

"I said, in all humility...I don't know about courage, but I'm happy to be your physician," Beecham said. He joined with a pregnant woman seeking an abortion to challenge the law, which said a doctor could be charged with murder for performing an abortion.

The 1971 case was called Beecham vs. Leahy--yes, current U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), who was the Chittenden County State's Attorney at the time. It was his job to defend the anti-abortion law, but he actually supported (and continues to support) women's reproductive rights. A spokesperson for the Senator says he agrees the law he defended was unconstitutional.

Beecham won the case, which legalized abortion in Vermont. The following year in 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court also ruled in favor of abortion in Roe vs. Wade.

So, Beecham was surprised to recently learn that old, unconstitutional law he worked to strike down was still on the law books in Vermont.

Monday, that law was finally repealed. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D-Vermont) signed a bill that removes the unconstitutional statute. It overwhelmingly passed the state legislature in February. He signed it at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, located in Burlington.

"I'm proud to sign this bill that really sends a clear message--in Vermont, we are going to stand up for all of our citizens, particularly women, and ensure that they can continue to make their healthcare decisions with their providers," Shumlin said. He said he was also signing it with his two 20-something daughters in mind.

The bill has started a conversation about a way to remove unconstitutional laws more efficiently. Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell says it could be something his office works on.

"I don't think there was going to be a Vermont prosecutor in the last 20 or 30 years who would've tried to enforce the law that was removed by this act," Sorrell said.  "But I think it's a good idea generally to take a fresh look at our statutes from time to time and make sure that they're still constitutional and still relevant, and still necessary to have."

The law takes effect immediately.

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