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Mass. abortion rights group going it alone

Thousands of people attended a Defend Abortion rally at Franklin Park’s Playstead Park. Marcia Olson from Stoughton (center) holds a sign.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

With abortion rights on the line nationally and in more than half of states, Massachusetts’ leading reproductive rights advocacy organization will announce Wednesday it’s reconstituting and expanding its reach in New England.

NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, one of the organizations that successfully pushed for the state law that expanded abortion rights last year, is being renamed Reproductive Equity Now after a break with its national organization.

Reproductive Equity Now intends to continue its state-level advocacy in Massachusetts and offer grassroots support in places like neighboring New Hampshire, which recently enacted strict new limits on abortion. Twenty-six states have gone even farther and are considered likely or certain to abolish abortion outright if an upcoming decision by the Supreme Court allows.

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“We unfortunately are living at a time when the states are cleaving,” said Rebecca Hart Holder, executive director of Reproductive Equity Now. “Half the country will quickly act to end abortion care as we know it and we will feel those ripple effects.”

Massachusetts already is seeing an uptick in abortion patients traveling from other states, she suggested, as evidenced by a provider’s recent treatment of someone from Texas, which has passed the nation’s strictest abortion ban to date. And in New Hampshire, it’s now a felony to perform an abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions to save the patient’s life or major bodily functions, but not for cases of rape, incest, or fatal fetal abnormalities.

“There is huge energy among activists in Massachusetts to want to do work in New Hampshire to help protect access to abortion,” said Hart Holder. The budget that Republican Governor Chris Sununu signed last summer also mandated ultrasounds before a pregnancy can be terminated and slashed funding for family planning clinics that provide abortions.

The changes to the advocacy group’s mission came after the board of NARAL Pro-Choice America voted in June to eliminate support for affiliates in Massachusetts and 10 other states and to coordinate its efforts as an “integrated, nationwide organization.”

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“We believe a single, nationwide organization that is strategically aligned and working together can create a stronger community and a more empowered member experience to win elections and win legislative battles at the local, state and federal level,” Anna Burger, chair of the NARAL Pro-Choice America board, said in a statement.

Under the new structure, the national organization will continue to invest in states with an eye toward state and federal legislative goals, upcoming elections, and proximity to states that will likely ban abortion, she said.

“At this time next year, we could easily be looking at a scenario where 26 states have outlawed abortion,” Burger said. “The stakes have never been higher for reproductive freedom and abortion access.”

NARAL Pro-Choice America, which counts some 2.5 million members nationwide, is also focused on a federal effort to codify Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that made abortion legal nationwide. In September, the US House passed on largely partisan lines a bill called the Women’s Health Protection Act that is aimed at legalizing abortion independently of the court ruling. Though that was the first time Congress has ever advanced legislation establishing the right to an abortion, the bill faces long odds in the split Senate.


The national strategy, however, seems like an inversion of the state-by-state, long-game strategy that has well served the abortion opposition movement, which spent decades supporting anti-abortion legislators and judges. Three Supreme Court appointments by former president Donald Trump cemented a conservative majority that is now expected to overturn Roe v. Wade. On Dec. 1, the court will hear oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, in which Mississippi’s last abortion clinic challenged a 2018 Mississippi law that banned abortions after 15 weeks, except in cases of severe fetal abnormality or other medical emergencies.

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“The ascension of Justice [Amy] Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court was the green light for the state of Texas and the state of Mississippi to start passing legislation to directly challenge Roe v. Wade,” said Hart Holder. “And they were able to do that because they had spent decades seeding the legislature with antichoice people. They have been building to the Dobbs case for decades.”

Massachusetts is among the blue states that worked to protect access to reproductive rights during the Trump administration, anticipating a potential reversal on the national level. Late last year, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted the “Roe Act,” which codified abortion rights in state law and eliminated parental consent requirement for 16- and 17-year-olds.

“They have been a strong partner over the years and decades, really, and I do not see that changing,” Senate President Karen E. Spilka said in an interview. “We’ve accomplished a lot just in the last few years.”

But Hart Holder said the fight for reproductive rights is a continuing one.

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“The moment that Roe Act was passed, people started working on how to override it,” she said.

And, she noted, even with expanded rights, patients still have problems getting access to reproductive care that is supposedly protected by law. For instance, she said, despite a provision in the contraceptive ACCESS law enacted four years ago, women have still faced trouble getting a year’s supply of birth control pills at one time, as The Boston Globe previously reported.

The group’s new name includes “equity” in recognition of its import in reproductive rights.

“What we wanted to say with our name is simply having the right is not enough. If you can’t exercise the right, the right is meaningless,” said Hart Holder. “If you don’t recognize the burden of inequity falls disproportionately on communities of color then you’re not in the right fight.”


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her @StephanieEbbert.