Acknowledging the change in the national landscape for reproductive rights, Massachusetts legislative leaders on Monday announced their intention to take up measures that would protect and expand abortion rights in Massachusetts.
“We are very concerned that Massachusetts' women’s reproductive rights are under threat at the national level," said a joint statement from House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka. "We are therefore committed to debate measures in the House and Senate this session that would remove barriers to women’s reproductive health options and protect the concepts enshrined in Roe v. Wade.”
The move follows the confirmation of US Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump’s third Supreme Court justice, who cements a conservative majority that reproductive rights activists fear could overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that legalized abortion in 1973.
The Legislature had already been considering a bill pushed by reproductive rights activists, called the Roe Act, which would codify abortion rights into state law and lift restrictions that currently limit access.
Activists from Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, and NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, relaunched a campaign for the bill last Tuesday, the same day Barrett was sworn in, and US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey, both Democrats, joined in an online rally.
Abortion is protected under the state constitution, according to a ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
However, as more conservative states take steps to curtail abortion access, Massachusetts activists aimed to enshrine the right in law as well, as they have already done in New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The proposed measure also would lift some existing restrictions on abortion.
Currently, people younger than 18 must show they have the consent of a parent or judge, and no one can get an abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy unless their health or life is in danger.
The Roe Act would allow for abortions after 24 weeks in cases in which a fatal fetal anomaly has been diagnosed. It would also remove the requirement for parental or judicial consent.
The joint legislative Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the measure in June 2019, but action stalled. Antiabortion activists decried the bill as extreme. Some lawmakers expressed misgivings about lifting the age requirement for abortion, noting that it could mean a girl as young as 12 could get an abortion without telling her parents.
But the shifting balance of the Supreme Court may be changing the conversation.
"I think they understand that regardless of what happens in the presidential election tomorrow, the Supreme Court represents an existential threat to the right to choose. And that doesn’t go away — and the barriers that people face for accessing care in Massachusetts don’t go away — if President Trump leaves office,” Rebecca Hart Holder, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, said Monday.
“The COVID pandemic really highlights the fact that many of our laws are arbitrary and they’re designed to prevent women from accessing care, rather than helping women access care in a state that has some of the best health care in the world,” Hart Holder added. “And that’s untenable.”