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Baker vetoes funds for public education campaign aimed at antiabortion pregnancy centers

Governor Charlie BakerSteven Senne/Associated Press

Governor Charlie Baker surprised reproductive rights advocates Friday by vetoing $1 million the Legislature had allocated for a public education campaign about crisis pregnancy centers — the antiabortion facilities that have faced criticism for misleading advertising and have been attacked nationwide since Roe v. Wade was overturned.

The veto came as Baker signed a $3.76 billion supplemental spending plan that did include $16.5 million to support access to reproductive care and family planning services. That money came on top of $2 million the Legislature had in its regular state budget for abortion access after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade — including state money spent directly on abortions for the first time.

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“I am striking language that earmarks funding for a program not recommended,” Baker wrote in his veto message. “The information required to be published by this earmark is already publicly available from the state.”

Antiabortion activists had spoken out against the funding after it was included in the package the Legislature passed Nov. 4. The activists launched an e-mail and phone campaign to urge the governor not to spend state money criticizing the centers that assist women who want to continue their pregnancies.

“We believe that taxpayer money shouldn’t be used to disparage the good work that pregnancy resource centers accomplish,” said Myrna Maloney Flynn, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life. “Taxpayer money — really any money — shouldn’t be used in a way that harms women who are in crisis.”

Those centers, which often market themselves to look like abortion clinics but dissuade patients from opting for abortions, have become the villains of the abortion rights movement post-Dobbs, with activists pressuring officials to shut them down or crack down on misleading advertising. At the same time, dozens of centers across the country have been attacked by vandals calling themselves Jane’s Revenge, who have left threatening messages like, “If abortions aren’t safe, neither are you.”

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Senator Elizabeth Warren publicly accused centers over the summer of trying to fool women into continuing pregnancies. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who was elected Tuesday to succeed Baker as governor, issued a consumer advisory in July warning that the centers are seldom medical clinics and may offer inaccurate information.

That prompted pushback from a fledgling coalition of crisis pregnancy centers, working with First Liberty Institute, a legal organization that defends religious liberty, which suggested that it may challenge Healey’s advisory on religious discrimination grounds. They and their supporters argue that the often faith-based centers aim to help women, often providing diapers and car seats, and personally knitting caps for babies.

“What I think is concerning is that this $1 million amount was set aside months after Senator Warren and Governor-elect Healey very publicly disparaged those pregnancy resource centers ... at a time when PRCs generally were under threat from organizations like Jane’s Revenge anyway,” said Maloney Flynn. “Our top leaders in the state came out and made things worse.”

Maloney Flynn said members of her organization worked quickly, along with the Massachusetts Family Institute and Renew Massachusetts Coalition, urging the governor to “stop tax dollars from going to harm places that are already under threat.”

The overwhelmingly Democratic-led Legislature had set aside $1 million for the public education campaign by the Department of Public Health, which has already warned consumers to avoid crisis pregnancy centers.

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Rebecca Hart Holder, executive director of Reproductive Equity Now, said she was surprised that Baker vetoed the line item, days after an election in which voters showed resounding support for abortion rights nationwide — especially since in Massachusetts, Governor-elect Healey, who is so out front on reproductive freedom, got such a clear mandate to lead.”

“Choice is popular. Vetoing this line item, which is aimed at adding clarity to the search for reproductive health providers, is really out of step with the people of Massachusetts,” said Hart Holder.

Pregnancy resource centers have a long history of locating near existing abortion clinics, adopting similar names, and aiming advertising at women facing crisis pregnancies, a practice that critics say lures patients who know they want an abortion into places that intend to talk them out of it. Healey’s advisory even warned that the centers will “sometimes use tactics to delay your access to care, which may reduce or eliminate your options and ability to receive services.”

”Everyone deserves access to medically accurate, nonjudgmental health care, and antiabortion crisis pregnancy centers jeopardize that care,” said Dr. Nate Horwitz-Willis, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of MA. “To realize reproductive freedom and make reproductive health care equitably accessible, we need to address and prevent dangerous misinformation about abortion care.”

Baker’s actions on abortion have confused advocates on both sides of the issue. An avowed supporter of abortion rights, Baker vetoed the ROE Act, the 2020 bill passed by the Legislature to protect abortion rights in the state from the anticipated fall of Roe. (The Legislature voted to override his veto.) But in July, after the Supreme Court’s ruling, Baker signed another law expanding abortion rights in state. And he did not object to the supplemental budget’s larger infusion of funds for abortion.

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“I think the governor has done good things on choice. I am frustrated by a lot of other things he has done, like vetoing the ROE act and endorsing [Maine Republican Senator] Susan Collins,” said Hart Holder.

The veto comes at a time of soul-searching for the Republican Party, which often found success at the governor’s office with socially moderate fiscal conservatives like Baker.

On Tuesday, voters rejected the GOP’s Donald Trump-aligned nominee for governor, Geoff Diehl, and Democrats claimed every statewide office while increasing their overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate. Even the ballot question Diehl championed — whether to stop unauthorized immigrants from getting driver’s licenses — was defeated. Since the losses, some are asking Massachusetts Republican Party Chairman Jim Lyons — a conservative who has sparred with the more centrist Baker — to step aside.

Lyons, a former legislator and a longtime leader of the antiabortion movement in Massachusetts, had been unusually silent on abortion, from the time of the Supreme Court’s ruling and throughout the election.

Lyons declined to speak to the intraparty politics but expressed gratitude for Baker’s actions Friday on the funding against crisis pregnancy centers.

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“I commend the governor for taking that step,” Lyons said. “I’m very happy that he did it.”


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