On the day the nation’s highest court ruled that family-owned businesses can decline to provide insurance coverage for contraception, Karyn Polito made sure a room full of Republican women knew exactly where she stands: in favor of women’s access to contraception and abortion.
“We are our own brand on the social issues . . . embracing a woman’s right to choose,” said Polito, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, referring to herself and running mate, Charlie Baker.
“That’s our message,” Polito said to rousing applause.
Two recent Supreme Court cases — striking down Massachusetts’ abortion clinic buffer zone law and the federal requirement that employers cover contraception — have energized Massachusetts voters, politicians, and women’s organizations around issues of women’s health.
Hundreds have rushed to volunteer at the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, which supports abortion rights. At the same time, Anne Fox, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, which opposes abortion rights, said her thank you notes to large donors have tripled. But for the most part, passions are crystallizing into a movement of women, both Democratic and Republican in a state that overwhelmingly supports abortion rights, who see the rulings as an encroachment.
There are legislative seats open, gubernatorial candidates running for office, and a host of constitutional officers on the ballot come November, and some voters say they will be paying more attention to where candidates stand on women’s health issues.
“They are going to come out swinging,” said Erin O’Brien, a professor at University of Massachusetts Boston whose research includes women and politics.
That vigor should translate to higher voter turnout among women, said Ann Bookman, director of the university’s Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy. “You are going to see quite a bit of mobilization,” Bookman said.
Already a coalition of five prominent women’s groups — Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, Women’s Campaign Fund, NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, and MassNOW — have begun to rally.
They threw their collective support behind a plan by Attorney General Martha Coakley to — if elected governor — require companies contracting with the state to offer employees insurance that covers contraception “no matter the views of their employer.”
And this week these groups and others plan to host a rally on Boston City Hall Plaza for women’s equality.
Bookman also predicted candidates will start prioritizing women in ads and outreach.
Almost immediately, most candidates for statewide offices, save for two gubernatorial candidates who oppose abortion rights, began reaching out to women, stressing that women’s health concerns are a priority.
Don Berwick and state Treasurer Steve Grossman — like Coakley, Democratic candidates for governor — used phrases like “a sad day” and “deeply disappointed” when describing the decision striking down the state’s buffer zones. And Evan Falchuk, independent candidate for governor, called the decision on contraception “a disturbing precedent.”
At a “Women for Charlie” event, Polito said the issue helps their ticket “define who we are, that we fully embrace a woman’s right to access her health care and choose what is right for herself.”
Ingrid Calder was inside Joe’s American Bar & Grill on the Boston waterfront that night to hear what Baker and Polito had to say on the topic of women’s health.
The 42-year-old Beacon Hill resident had already made up her mind to support Baker, but she still wanted to hear his stance. Calder said she was baffled by the buffer zone decision and wants her vote to go to someone who supports women’s rights.
“I don’t want to run idiots. This is a huge deal,” she said. Calder recalled a time when Governor William Weld was booed at the 1990 state convention for his support of a woman’s right to choose. He basically said, “ ‘It’s not my body. It’s not my baby,’. . . and I’m hoping Charlie Baker thinks that.”
She was pleased to hear Polito say their ticket did — although some women’s groups do not consider the Baker-Polito ticket fully in favor of abortion rights for, among other reasons, not supporting comprehensive sex education.
Martha Walz, president of the local branch of Planned Parenthood, said helping to draft state legislation that provides new protections for clinic-goers has become a top priority.
“I feel like I’m in a way-back machine,” she said. “The Supreme Court made it harder for women to get health care. It’s been nearly 100 years, and we’re still fighting about birth control.”
That thought is beyond understanding, said City Councilor Ayanna Pressley of Boston, who has worked to develop comprehensive sex education for city public schools and strengthened pathways to graduation for pregnant and parenting teens.
“It’s stunning that in 2014 we’re having this type of debate and having to strategize on the city, state, and federal level with elected officials and advocates kind of scrambling to mitigate the impact of this and figure out how to reverse this course,” Pressley said.
Megan Amundson, director of NARAL’s Massachusetts chapter, said the time has come for a statewide movement, which includes expanding the “very slim prochoice majority” in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
“It’s really underappreciated. We’re on the verge of losing it every election cycle,” Amundson said.
And although much of the energy has been exhibited by those who feel their rights have been trampled by the Supreme Court, there is also evidence that the antiabortion camp has been galvanized too, seeing an increase in fund-raising.
“For 41 years now, our women have been politically active and have been working very hard, so it’s very satisfying for them to get a decision from the court that validated our work,” said Fox, the Citizens for Life president, noting she is watching legislative efforts to craft new protections for clinic-goers. “Of course we will be working against that,” she said.
Sally Healy, the cochairwoman of the Braintree/Weymouth chapter of Citizens for Life, has been an opponent of abortion rights for decades.
Asked about the impact of the high court’s rulings, Healy said: “I don’t think it’s going to hurt the cause. Let me put it that way.”
Still, she and Fox have bigger goals. After all, they say, neither Supreme Court case was argued directly on the issue of abortion.
“People are so excited by the win, but actually it’s a First Amendment case, not strictly an abortion case,” Fox said of the buffer zone ruling. And last week’s ruling on birth control coverage was argued on the grounds of religious freedom.
“I would much rather see Roe v. Wade overturned or something like that,” Fox said.