Governor Charlie Baker on Friday sent back to the Legislature a closely watched measure that would expand access to abortion in Massachusetts, saying he “cannot support” language that would allow 16- or 17-year-olds to get an abortion without parental consent.
The abortion proposal had been tacked onto a pandemic-delayed state budget that lawmakers sent to Baker five months into the fiscal year. While signing the $45.9 billion spending plan, the Republican kicked the abortion measure back to lawmakers with suggested changes — setting off criticism from abortion rights advocates, including those who had praised him in the past.
The version passed by lawmakers would lower the age limit to receive an abortion without parental consent or court approval from 18 to 16 years old, and it would allow abortions after 24 weeks when a fetus has been diagnosed with a fatal anomaly or if a doctor determines the fetus is “incompatible with sustained life outside the uterus.”
The measure also further codifies the right to an abortion in state law. Its passage came after Democratic lawmakers pledged to protect abortion rights, arguing that Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, cementing its conservative majority, poses a threat to the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that made abortion legal nationwide.
Baker, who supports abortion rights, told legislators in a letter that he backs several “important changes” within the proposal, including the language that affirms the right to an abortion and the provision ensuring that “a woman can access an abortion in cases where the child will not survive after birth.”
“However,” he wrote, “I cannot support the other ways that this section expands the availability of late-term abortions and permits minors age 16 and 17 to get an abortion without the consent of a parent or guardian.”
In addition to dropping the language lowering the age to 16, Baker is proposing to change the conditions under which an abortion would be allowed after 24 weeks. He suggested allowing them if continuing the pregnancy would pose “a substantial risk” to a woman’s physical or mental health — language that more closely reflects current law. The version passed by lawmakers would allow abortions after 24 weeks if, in a doctor’s opinion, it would “preserve” it.
Baker also proposed civil penalties for those doctors who violate the late-term abortion laws, including fines up to $15,000 and loss of their professional license.
Whether the Democratic-controlled Legislature considers Baker’s proposed changes remains to be seen. The House and Senate each passed slightly different versions of the amendment by a veto-proof margin — albeit barely in the House, 108-49.
Aides to Senate President Karen E. Spilka said Friday only that she would review Baker’s proposed changes. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
State Senator Harriette L. Chandler, a Worcester Democrat who filed the Senate’s version of the proposal, said Friday that the Legislature’s language “ensures that the choice of an abortion is between a patient and their doctor.”
“I do not support the governor’s amendment because it maintains barriers to abortion care for young people, particularly young people of color and of low income,” she said.
The governor’s decision thrust him in the middle of a sensitive debate about reproductive rights, and drew attacks on his record as an abortion rights supporter. Baker had pledged in 2017 to use state funds to offset any cuts to Planned Parenthood’s federal funding and signed a 2018 bill that struck down a 19th-century state law that criminalized abortion.
During the 2018 gubernatorial race, the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts notably stayed neutral, saying that “voters should feel assured” reproductive health care access would be protected whether Baker or his Democratic challenger, Jay Gonzalez, won.
On Friday, the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund was part of a coalition of groups that quickly criticized Baker, charging that his amendment “maintains the state’s greatest barriers to care.”
“The Governor cannot have it both ways: He cannot call himself pro-choice and keep anti-choice restrictions in place,” the group, known as the ROE Act Coalition, said in a statement. The coalition, which also includes the ACLU of Massachusetts and NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, has pushed the budget provision and before that, a more far-reaching proposal, known as the ROE Act, on which it was modeled.
“For decades, medically unnecessary barriers to abortion have sent people out of state, forced young people to go before a judge, and delayed and denied care,” the group said. “Under Governor Baker’s amendment, these hardships will continue.”
A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll released Friday found mixed support for the measures as passed by the Legislature. Roughly 48 percent said they support allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to get an abortion without parental consent, while 40 percent oppose it. Another 9 percent said they were undecided.
And, 56 percent said they backed the expanded provision for abortions after 24 weeks, while 25 percent opposed it.
Friday marked the second time in as many days Baker pushed back against the Legislature’s wording on a major issue, after sending a far-reaching policing bill back to them with several changes.
The debate over the abortion language, however, is but one consideration within a much broader spending bill. Baker, in signing the budget, vetoed a little more than $150 million in spending approved by lawmakers, and is now forecasting the state will collect $459 million more in tax revenue than his administration had expected two months ago amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among the spending he slashed was $53 million dedicated to schools to help weather the pandemic. Instead, Baker immediately filed a supplemental spending bill with the same amount but with language giving the state more flexibility in deciding where to spend it. The supplemental proposal also included nearly $50 million in small business aid after lawmakers had cut Baker’s initial $100 million plan for small businesses in half in the final budget.
The new budget does not include any broad-based tax increases, a move Baker and legislative leaders had eschewed in the face of what they initially estimated as a $3.6 billion revenue shortfall. Instead, it relies on $1.38 billion in one-time federal aid and allows using as much as $1.7 billion from the state’s $3.5 billion state’s emergency savings account.
Baker’s office said Friday that while the budget allows for that much, he is budgeting to use $1.35 billion, which he had initially proposed.
Lawmakers included a host of other policy measures in the budget Baker signed, including a one-year delay in implementing a charitable giving tax deduction that voters first approved two decades ago. But it was quickly mothballed after its approval, and will now not go into effect until at least 2022, saving the state an estimated $64 million this fiscal year.
Another budget rider would allow officials to impose ignition interlock devices on first-time drunk-driving offenders if they had a blood alcohol level of 0.15 or higher. Massachusetts was the only state in the country that does not allow the use of interlocks for first offenders, according to state Senator Bruce E. Tarr, who sponsored the proposal.