The Massachusetts House, anticipating the possibility that a newly conservative Supreme Court could threaten abortion rights, plans to take up a measure this week that would remove barriers to abortion access, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said on Monday.
Sought by reproductive rights activists for nearly two years, the proposal would allow an abortion after 24 weeks of gestation if the fetus is diagnosed with a fatal anomaly and is not expected to survive. It would also lower the age limit on abortion, requiring parental consent or a judicial order only for those younger than 16, the age of consent, rather than 18, as it stands under current law.
The House intends to move swiftly, DeLeo said, taking up the provision as an amendment to the budget because of the altered landscape for reproductive rights. Last month’s confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett solidified the conservative makeup of the highest court and spurred liberal concerns that the court will reverse the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that made abortion legal. DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka last week announced that they would move quickly on an effort to protect and expand abortion rights within the state.
“Following last week’s joint statement with Senate President Spilka, in which we expressed concern over the threat to women’s reproductive rights on the national level, it is urgent that the House take up an immediate measure to remove barriers to women’s reproductive health options and protect the concepts enshrined in Roe v. Wade,” DeLeo said in a statement.
Reproductive rights advocates had previously championed a bill called the Roe Act, which would codify abortion rights into state law and lift barriers to access. But after the Joint Committee on the Judiciary held tumultuous hearings on that proposal in June 2019, the bill languished. Opponents of abortion blasted the measure as extreme and, as in other states considering similar legislation, accused its proponents of trying to legalize “infanticide.”
Abortion is barred in Massachusetts after 24 weeks gestation, except if it is necessary to save the life of the mother, or if it causes a risk of “grave impairment of her physical or mental health.” Both the Roe Act and the language now being considered would also allow abortions after 24 weeks if, in the best medical judgment of the physician, the fetus has a lethal anomaly incompatible with sustained life outside the uterus. It also adjusts the language to give doctors discretion as to whether an abortion is necessary “to preserve” the life of the mother.
The language now being considered seeks to ameliorate one of abortion opponents' stated concerns by retaining language that calls for life-supporting equipment to be available in the procedure room, “to take appropriate steps, in keeping with good medical practice and consistent with the procedure being used, to preserve the life and health of a live birth and the patient.”
Meanwhile, legislators had quietly expressed discomfort about voting to lift the restrictions for minors, which currently require a patient who does not want to seek a parent’s consent for the procedure to go to court to get an order from a judge. The language now being considered would retain that requirement but only for those under 16.
But state GOP chairman Jim Lyons condemned the legislation, saying Democrats were “using their failure to pass a timely budget as a means to ram through this legislation without a single public hearing on the amendment,” even though DeLeo promised the budget would include no significant policy riders.
“The Democrats just woke up from a four-month legislative nap and decided the height of an emergency health pandemic is a good time to do something like this,” he said in a statement. “Their priorities are nothing short of ghoulish.”
Representative Claire Cronin, who chairs the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, said in a statement the provision is the product of 18 months of discussion, study, and testimony from people across Massachusetts.
“The death of Justice Ginsburg, coupled with the recent Supreme Court appointment, contributed to a renewed and significant push for legislative action to ensure that women continue to have access to safe reproductive health care in Massachusetts,” Cronin said. “This amendment addresses the concerns of our members.”