Days after Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed as the newest justice on the US Supreme Court, the leaders of the Massachusetts House and Senate released a rare joint statement pledging to “remove barriers to women’s reproductive health options and protect the concepts enshrined in Roe v. Wade.”
And so they did, passing a budget amendment codifying and expanding protections for abortion rights in Massachusetts — something that’s especially critical given fears that the court’s conservative majority could overturn the 1973 ruling. Now state lawmakers should finish that work by overturning Governor Charlie Baker’s recent proposed amendments to portions of that legislation.
The legislation is more than a backstop to the rights currently protected by Roe. Indeed, it goes beyond Roe to expand abortion rights for women in Massachusetts beyond what exists now.
At issue is the Legislature’s effort to lower the age of consent to 16 for women seeking abortions and to expand access to late-term abortions, both of which Governor Charlie Baker said in a letter to lawmakers that he could not support. Notably, Baker, who has long campaigned as an abortion-rights Republican and signed a 2018 bill that cleared away a host of old statutes that once criminalized abortion, agreed to the rest of the legislation and did not overtly threaten to veto the whole package of abortion-related measures if the Legislature rejects his amendments.
The Roe Act Coalition — a group that includes the local branches of Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union — criticized Baker’s proposed amendments to the law.
“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 coalition said in a statement. “Under Governor Baker’s amendment, these hardships will continue. These barriers disproportionately harm people of color and people with low incomes.”
Under current state law, women under the age of 18 seeking an abortion must have the consent of a parent or seek the permission of a superior court judge. The Legislature’s measure would require no such permission for young women 16 and older. That’s hardly radical. Fifteen other states have either no parental consent requirements or none for those over 16 (South Carolina sets its age at 17).
In fact, young people under the age of 18 can already access all other kinds of health care, including reproductive health care and pregnancy-related care — abortion being the exception. Massachusetts law also sets 16 as the legal age to consent to sex.
Late-term abortions — those after 24 weeks gestation — are rare and often the result of unbearably difficult medical decisions. Neither the governor nor the Legislature supported lifting restrictions on late-term abortions entirely, as seven states have done. They did agree on a key point: that the state should permit such abortions in cases involving “lethal fetal anomaly.” But, while they both saw the need to update the language allowing late-term abortions for the health and safety of the mother, the Legislature reworded it in a more expansive fashion. Lawmakers voted to allow abortions in order to “preserve the patient’s physical or mental health,” while Baker proposed allowing them only if continuing the pregnancy would pose “a substantial risk” to a woman’s physical or mental health — a too-narrow standard that’s only a slight difference from existing law.
And while lawmakers sought to eliminate a criminal penalty currently on the books for doctors who violate the state law on late-term abortions, Baker is now seeking to make that a civil penalty — one that could lead to forfeiture of a medical license and a fine of up to $15,000. It’s a provision that advocates believe is still intended to have a chilling effect on abortion providers.
The broader context here is that abortion rights must be kept safe in Massachusetts, no matter what the Supreme Court does. The state already took the step of eliminating old restrictions in 2018, and the current legislation would enshrine legal protections. But the details matter, and the Legislature’s approach is better than Baker’s. A teen who is old enough to consent to sex is also old enough to consent to an abortion. A woman forced to make the most painful decision of her life late into a pregnancy shouldn’t have to go elsewhere to terminate that pregnancy.
Speaker Robert DeLeo says the House will vote Wednesday on overturning Baker’s amendments. Even as this year’s legislative session nears its end, this is one of those battles lawmakers need to make certain they see to the finish.
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