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State lawmakers poised to shield providers of abortion, transgender care from bounty-style laws in other states

Pro-choice demonstrators rally outside the State House during a Pro-Choice Mother's Day Rally in Boston, Massachusetts on May 8, 2022. Multiple US organizations that support abortion rights called for nationwide protests on May 14, after a leaked draft opinion showed the US Supreme Court was poised to overturn its landmark Roe v. Wade decision.JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

Legislative leaders appear to have reached broad agreement to pass a measure aimed at shielding providers of abortion and transgender health care in Massachusetts from bounty-style laws being enacted by other states.

House Speaker Ronald Mariano said Tuesday said his chamber is expecting to pass a wide-ranging reproductive rights bill that codifies part of an executive order Governor Charlie Baker signed on Friday and goes further to shield patients and providers from out-of-state legal action.

”We have Roe on the books. We codified it,” Mariano said. “Now we want to protect the people who have to use it.”

Legislators have said they do not believe they can protect individuals from prosecution for violating the law of another state, but are confident they can prevent Massachusetts law enforcement from aiding out-of-state prosecution for activity that is legal here. That would mean not filing summons or cooperating with investigations for providers or patients, and not extraditing providers accused of violating laws in other states by treating patients in Massachusetts.

The bill, which the House is expected to approve on Wednesday, would also call for health insurers to provide abortion coverage without copayments or any form of cost-sharing. It would make emergency contraception more readily accessible by giving licensed pharmacists a standing order to dispense it on request. And it would create provisions that shield physicians, physician assistants, nurses, psychologists, and social workers from repercussions for providing legal abortion or transgender care.

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States such as Texas and Oklahoma have enacted laws that restrict abortion by allowing citizens to sue anyone who facilitates an abortion. The Texas Supreme Court also authorized the state to investigate parents of transgender youth for child abuse and other states are considering proposals to penalize health care providers for gender care for children and teenagers.

Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, thanked the House leadership for acting “boldly and with urgency.”

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“With the Supreme Court’s recent ruling and other civil rights at stake, it is more important than ever that our state leaders ensure meaningful access to abortion, contraception, and gender-affirming care for anyone who needs it,” she said.

Legislators are rushing to take action before they break for summer recess in August to address Friday’s momentous Supreme Court ruling, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which allowed states to prohibit abortion for the first time in 49 years. Abortion bans, with very limited exceptions, have already gone into effect in nine states, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights think tank that tracks state policies.

The Senate passed a similar measure as a budget amendment, but Mariano said there are “major differences” between the two bills that will need to be reconciled before a final version can be sent to Baker.

Among the differences is a potentially significant addition to the state’s abortion law, which currently permits the procedure after 24 weeks of pregnancy only when a doctor deems it necessary to protect the patient’s life, physical health, mental health, or in cases of a “lethal” fetal anomaly. The House measure would expand the exemption after 24 weeks to include “severe” fetal anomalies. It also calls for the Department of Public Health to create regulations on when abortions could be performed after 24 weeks.

C. J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League, said that seemed to be an attempt to maximize the parameters of legal abortion and expand the bill that codified abortion into state law in 2020. Since the latest measure exempts only churches or “qualified church-controlled” organizations from covering abortion, it would compel abortion coverage by most Catholic charitable, educational, medical and fraternal organizations.

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“This is a punitive measure,” Doyle said. “It would seem that the Dobbs decision is being used as an excuse to coerce the consciences of Catholic and other pro-life religious believers.”

The exception for fatal fetal anomalies was added in the 2020 bill, which Baker vetoed, taking issue with the exception and a measure that lowered the age limit for abortion without parental consent from 18 to 16. Lawmakers overrode the veto with a supermajority vote.

The Senate has not considered the expanded language on severe anomalies. A Baker spokesman, Terry MacCormack, did not say how the governor would handle such a measure but said he would carefully review any legislation that reaches his desk.

Samantha J. Gross of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


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