Governor Charlie Baker on Friday signed a bill that broadens access to abortion in Massachusetts and helps shield providers from out-of-state prosecution, putting on the books an expansion of the state’s already extensive reproductive rights statute.
A month after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the law marked Massachusetts policymakers’ most substantial effort at transmuting residents’ fury over the court ending the constitutional right to an abortion into new protections here.
Baker’s office announced he had approved the legislation just days after the Legislature sent it to him, releasing a picture of him signing it in a closed ceremony alongside Senate President Karen E. Spilka, an Ashland Democrat.
The second-term Republican supports abortion rights and has sought to protect providers through an executive order he signed last month in the wake of the Supreme Court decision — elements of which were included in the legislation he signed Friday.
But he had been noncommittal on how he would approach the bill after lawmakers reached a deal on language expanding when an abortion can performed after 24 weeks of pregnancy. The measure was viewed as a potential hurdle given Baker’s past opposition to expanding the availability of later-term abortions as part of an abortion rights bill that passed in 2020.
His decision to sign it diffused a potential dispute with Democratic leaders at a time when tensions are already high and lawmakers are racing to complete other work before their formal sessions end Sunday night.
It also appears to reflect what many residents in Massachusetts say they want: A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll released this week found that 78 percent of respondents believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases, a decisive majority that substantially exceeds the national trend.
“Massachusetts remains steadfast in its commitment to protect access to reproductive health care services, especially in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade,” Baker said in a statement.
Previously, state law allowed an abortion at or after 24 weeks in cases of a “lethal fetal anomaly” or if “the fetus is incompatible with sustained life outside the uterus.” But it did not make any provision permitting the procedure for a baby that may only be able to survive with extreme interventions.
The bill Baker signed Friday allows for later-term abortions in the case of a “a lethal fetal anomaly or diagnosis . . . or grave fetal diagnosis that indicates that the fetus is incompatible with sustained life outside of the uterus without extraordinary medical interventions.”
In reaching a compromise on the language, legislative leaders had dropped a House-passed provision that would allow for later-term abortions in cases of “severe” fetal anomalies, which drew opposition from some disability advocates.
In pushing their version, House leaders had cited the case of Kate Dineen, who, at 33 weeks pregnant, learned that her son had suffered a catastrophic stroke in utero. Because the condition was not “lethal,” a later-term abortion was not an option, the Globe has reported, forcing Dineen and her husband to drive 500 miles from Boston to Maryland for the procedure.
Dineen told the Globe in a text message this week that the compromise language represents “important progress,” and she had urged Baker to sign the language into law.
Later-term abortions remain relatively rare, according to federal data from most states. The Centers for Disease Control reported roughly 4,900 abortions were performed at or after 21 weeks of gestation in 2019, representing 1 percent of all procedures.
But abortion rights advocates said the changes signed into law Friday are crucial to avoid forcing others to pursue care out of state.
“With this law, Massachusetts unequivocally affirms that abortion is health care, and that ZIP code, income, or identity should not be a barrier to care,” said Dr. Jennifer Childs-Roshak, president and chief executive of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts.
The bill also seeks to help shield Massachusetts providers from out-of-state prosecution for procedures that are legal here, such as abortions and gender-affirming care. That includes barring the governor from surrendering a person charged in another state “as a result of engaging in legally-protected health care activity.”
Baker and Democratic lawmakers have both said that building in protections against out-of-state litigation was key in any state response. States, including Texas and Oklahoma, have enacted laws that restrict abortion by allowing citizens to sue anyone who facilitates an abortion, while others, such as California, have responded with their own measures to shield providers.
The legislation Baker signed also makes emergency contraceptives such as Plan B available in vending machines and requires medication abortion availability at public colleges and universities, lawmakers said.
It also requires insurance coverage for abortion and abortion-related care without deductibles, co-pays, or other cost-sharing requirements.
It exempts churches or a “qualified church-controlled organization” from having to provide insurance coverage for abortion. But C. J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League, said there are a range of institutions, such as Catholic colleges or secondary schools, that would not fall under what he described as a “very narrowly drawn religious exemption.”
“When this law goes into effect, we’re going to have a great deal of litigation over it,” Doyle said. “I think Catholic institutions will end up suing.”
“Pregnant people, trans people, and all people must be allowed to make their own health care decisions in consultation with their physician without fear,” Spilka said in a statement. “Our fight to protect the rights and dignity of our residents cannot end today, however, and so the Senate will continue to explore ways to uphold our fundamental rights.”
House Speaker Ronald Mariano, who was not present for the bill signing, said the legislation will help ensure that the state “can serve as a safe haven” for women seeking an abortion and for providers “whose licenses could be at risk because of laws passed in other states.”
But in a sign of simmering tensions at the legislative session’s end, Mariano told reporters later Friday that he did not attend, in part, because he was “unhappy” with Baker after the governor directly criticized state Representative Michael S. Day, the House’s judiciary chairman, and his Senate counterpart, Senator Jamie Eldridge, for making what Baker called “harsh, cold, and callous” comments related to a totally different bill the Republican had pushed.
That bill, which would allow a court to hold people suspected of certain dangerous crimes without bail, has become a flashpoint between Baker and legislative leaders, who sought to kill it with a study order last week.
“I’m comfortable [with] what the House has done to get that bill passed,” Mariano added of the abortion rights legislation. “I don’t need to verify it with a bill signing.”
Samantha J. Gross of the Globe staff contributed to this report.