The House and Senate have come up with a reproductive rights package that Charlie Baker should be proud to sign.
But if past is prologue, it’s hard to predict what our prochoice Republican governor will do.
The last time Baker was given a chance to sign a comprehensive abortion rights bill, he sent it back with amendments. The Legislature did not agree, and Baker vetoed the Roe Act on Christmas Eve in 2020. It became law only after legislators overrode the veto.
Yet when the US Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade on June 24 and some states began to criminalize abortions, Baker made national headlines when he issued an executive order that same day to shield providers from out-of-state prosecution for performing abortions here on women from other jurisdictions.
So which Charlie Baker will we get this week?
Let me remind the governor who he is: Mr. 100% Pro-Choice.
That was the message Baker laid out in 2014 in his first TV ad of the general election campaign. Baker faced Democrat Martha Coakley, attorney general at the time. The campaign spot ― featuring his then-17-year-old daughter, Caroline ― was aimed to appeal to female voters by depicting Baker as both a doting father and the rare Republican who supports a woman’s right to choose.
“You’re totally prochoice and bipartisan,” Caroline says in the ad, as they sit together on a park bench surrounded by trees and grass.
And just in case you didn’t catch their chirpy dialogue, the words “100% Pro-Choice” scroll by.
This is the moment for Baker to keep his promise.
Massachusetts can lead the country on reproductive rights at a time when so much has been lost with the end of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. States in at least half the country are poised to or have already severely restricted access to an abortion.
This legislation is not just about protecting reproductive rights for our own residents, but making Massachusetts a beacon for women everywhere to come here for abortion services they can no longer receive in their home state.
Here’s how I’m sizing up the odds that the governor will do the right thing:
When it comes to protecting abortion providers here from out-of-state prosecution, Baker and the Legislature are on the same page. He’s got his executive order, and the House and Senate bill builds on those measures, codifying them into statute.
The House and Senate package also makes emergency contraception more accessible, and requires health insurers to cover abortions and related services without deductibles or copays.
Baker, too, has been amenable to funding access to abortion. In 2019, he signed a bill setting aside $8 million for women’s health services affected by the Trump administration’s changes to Title X, a federal program that provides affordable birth control and reproductive health care for low-income people.
Where Baker and the Legislature have parted ways is on how to handle later term abortions as spelled out in the 2020 Roe Act. The House and Senate fought over the issue in the latest reproductive rights bill, but came up with a compromise language on Monday to clarify the medical circumstances under which a pregnancy could be terminated at or after 24 weeks.
The existing law uses the phrase “lethal fetal anomaly,” but as I have written, that language in practice has been too restrictive for providers who fear running afoul of the law and continue to send women out of state for later term abortions. These are women who received a devastating diagnosis about their unborn child.
Both chambers agreed to add the “lethal fetal anomaly or diagnosis” language, as well as “a grave fetal diagnosis that indicates that the fetus is incompatible with sustained life outside of the uterus without extraordinary medical interventions.” They also added phrasing to empower the treating physician and patient to make the best decision, rather than relying on an outside medical review process.
When Baker vetoed the Roe Act, he cited two concerns: lowering the age for an abortion without parental consent to 16 and 17, and the language around terminating a pregnancy after 24 weeks. (The age of consent is not revisited in the current legislation.)
Looking back at Baker’s amendments in 2020, he went out of his way to state that he supported key elements of the Roe Act: provisions that codified in Massachusetts law a woman’s right to access an abortion and allowed a woman to have an abortion in cases where the child would not survive after birth.
“These are important changes to protect a women’s reproductive rights and autonomy in the Commonwealth, and I support them,” he wrote at the time.
Crucially, Baker did not in principle object to later term abortions. He disagreed with the language, and he may again choose to offer an amendment of his own this time. With the reproductive rights bill landing on Baker’s desk Tuesday, he now has 10 days to decide what to do.
This time, however, the Legislature won’t have the luxury of overriding a veto because the formal law making session ends on Sunday.
If Baker has any doubts about whether the current legislation’s language governing later abortions should be amended, consider what Dr. Chloe Zera has to say.
Zera is a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and vice chair of the health policy committee of the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine. Before the Roe Act, her group practice routinely sent a handful of women out of state each year to get a later term abortion. After the Roe Act passed, that number did not change.
Zera said the current law too narrowly defines the circumstances for a later abortion, noting that it becomes an equity issue because not everyone can afford to leave the state to terminate a pregnancy.
“What I want as a provider is to make sure that all of my patients have the same option,” Zera said. “That’s what doesn’t exist in Massachusetts right now. "
Zera likes the compromise language from the House and Senate. “What’s clear is that the Legislature was listening to patients and providers and trying to make something that everybody could agree on,” she said.
This is legacy-building time for Baker, who is not seeking a third term. Does he really want history to remember him as the proudly prochoice Republican governor who vetoed not one, but two reproductive rights bills?
He could sign the bill as is. He could let the package sit on his desk, allowing it to automatically become law in 10 days, without his fingerprints.
Baker can also send the bill back to legislators with amendments — and somehow, some way — get everyone to yes, quickly.
Before long, we could be standing by the grand staircase in the State House watching Baker, flanked by Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Ron Mariano, signing a reproductive rights bill into law.
Here’s betting Mr. 100% Pro-Choice will do the right thing. Don’t make me eat my words, governor.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.