Time to shore up our abortion laws

With the nomination of anti-Roe Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court, the need for reform is more urgent than ever

Judge Amy Coney Barrett appeared on Capitol Hill Oct. 14, during the third day of her Senate confirmation hearing to the Supreme Court.
Judge Amy Coney Barrett appeared on Capitol Hill Oct. 14, during the third day of her Senate confirmation hearing to the Supreme Court.Erin Schaff/New York Times

Here in progressive Massachusetts, we like to rail against anti-abortion rights forces abroad in the land. But isn’t it past time we got our act together on the issue here at home?

We have our own deeply-flawed abortion statutes, which timid state legislators have spent decades not fixing.

Now the more skittish among them have plenty of cover to act. US Supreme Court giant Ruth Bader Ginsburg is gone. Republicans’ pick to succeed her is way out there on choice: Not only does Amy Coney Barrett believe Roe v Wade should be torpedoed; it’s likely she has a problem with IVF, too.


Legislators and judges have been rolling back abortion rights all over the country for years. Their efforts will be turbocharged if the Supreme Court reverses Roe. If that happens, abortion would likely become illegal in 22 states, according to a New York Times analysis, and the clinics closest to 41 percent of women of childbearing age would close. The average distance those women would have to travel for an abortion would be 280 miles (it is 36 now).

Access is unlikely to worsen in our state, but we still have some serious issues, thanks to a 1974 law passed to counter Roe.

“For many in the Bay State, the right to safe, legal abortion exists only on paper,” said Rebecca Hart Holder, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts. “Our laws ... look a lot more like the laws in West Virginia and North Carolina than California and New York.”

Among the barriers erected by that state law: a requirement that those under 18 seeking an abortion must get their parents’ permission. These days, those who can’t get one parent to sign on, or don’t want to, must get permission from a Superior Court judge before they can terminate a pregnancy — or go out of state for a safe and legal abortion.


Naturally this law, like so many others, falls most heavily on the most disadvantaged: Black and Hispanic teens, and poorer ones, are more likely to have to appear before judges before they can get abortions. A 2019 study found that judges virtually always say yes, but that even then, the process results in delays that can close off options. A third of minors who go before judges lose the option of medication abortion, for example, meaning they must undergo a more expensive and intrusive surgical procedure.

After years of efforts to update our laws, legislators seem to be seriously considering the ROE Act, which would do away with the requirement that those under 18 get parental consent. It’s the right thing to do: Minors inclined to involve their parents in such decisions would still be able to do so. But those who don’t have that good fortune should still be allowed to decide for themselves, ideally with help from other caring people in their lives.

“We will never see a day when women of means are not able to get safe abortion in this country,” Ginsburg herself once said. A ban only “hurts women who lack the means to go someplace else.”

For years, women with means have been traveling to Colorado and a handful of other clinics across the country to end their pregnancies when they face fatal fetal anomalies later in their pregnancies. That’s because, under current state law, abortion is prohibited here after 24 weeks unless the health or life of the woman is at stake — even if tests show the fetus cannot survive.


The ROE Act would expand access to abortion here after 24 weeks in the case of fatal fetal anomalies. Sparing someone in grief an expensive, days-long trip out of state to end their pregnancy is the compassionate thing to do. It might even be something some abortion opponents could get behind, were it not for the fact that Republicans here and nationally have tried to whip up voters by using later abortions to conjure the false specter of infanticide.

Legislators should not bend to that cruelty. Nor should Governor Charlie Baker, who has been iffy on the measure in the past, despite his pro-choice stance.

Now, with Barrett headed to the nation’s highest bench, legislators must act, with a veto-proof majority that would make this state’s laws on abortion better match the Commonwealth’s progressive reputation.

If not now, then when?

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.