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Next up: abortion politics goes local

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in front of the Massachusetts State House on June 25, 2021, to protest the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade case, ending a guarantee on a fundamental right to abortion and show their support for abortion rights.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Fresh off an election that proved the potency of abortion rights as a national issue, a Massachusetts grassroots group is launching a campaign for the next wave in post-Dobbs advocacy: going local.

Reproductive Equity Now, an advocacy group that endorsed candidates for last week’s state elections, is asking municipal leaders who have committed to support abortion to deliver on an array of proposals to advance reproductive rights in their communities.

“Since Dobbs, we internally have been talking about the need for a whole-of-government response, that it can’t just be the White House, or the US Senate, or state legislatures that are responding to the crisis of abortion access,” said Rebecca Hart Holder, executive director of the organization. ”It has to include city halls and school boards and local elections.”

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Under Massachusetts law, abortion rights are already protected. But for people with limited resources, access can be a challenge, and Reproductive Equity Now has compiled a dozen recommended policy proposals, draft ordinances, and resolutions meant to promote reproductive rights on a local level.

Some of the items are directly related to abortion, such as installing vending machines that carry emergency contraception. Other initiatives seek to ease the burden on those who bear children by providing free menstrual products in schools, libraries, and public buildings, creating affordable child care programs, and hosting forums on maternal health.

“The decision about if, when, and how to become a parent is about more than just abortion. It’s about, ‘Can I afford to have a kid? What will child care cost? If I’m a young person who just started menstruating, can I afford the supplies that I need?’ ” Hart Holder said. “What we’re really trying to do is take a holistic approach to reproductive equity and think about all the different interventions where cities can be making a difference in the lives of their constituents.”

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Abortion rights was a big winner in last week’s midterm elections, as five states with ballot questions voted to protect the right to terminate a pregnancy and voters rejected many extreme antiabortion candidates across the country. The results surprised many political observers who had predicted that the issue had become secondary to economic concerns. But it was no surprise in Massachusetts, a blue state where support for abortion is strong.

Every statewide candidate and state Senate candidate endorsed by Reproductive Equity Now last week won election, along with 106 of 113 candidates the group endorsed for the state House.

In last year’s municipal elections, more than 70 city council and mayoral candidates took the group’s City Champion Pledge, committing to policies that would protect access to not just abortion but a full range of reproductive health care such as preventing unintended pregnancy and bearing healthy infants. The candidates vowed to support a range of policies, such as full insurance coverage for pregnancy care, without cost-sharing, efforts to eliminate racial disparities in maternal health, and urging local schools to teach age-appropriate and medically accurate sex education.

Nine cities — Boston, Cambridge, Easthampton, Lynn, Newton, Northampton, Salem, Somerville, and Worcester — now have mayors who signed the pledge, along with majorities of the city councils of Boston, Cambridge and Somerville.

Reproductive Equity Now is highlighting the work of some of those cities and promoting model ordinances, resolutions, or bylaws it wants other communities to embrace. Salem, for instance, has adopted an ordinance to shield patients and providers of legal reproductive and gender-affirming health care from prosecution in other states.

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The proposals include an amendment the Boston City Council adopted to expand a 12-week paid parental leave program to cover those who lose a pregnancy to miscarriage or decide to terminate it. The plan offers direction to municipalities, school districts, and other local authorities that are currently excluded from paid family and medical leave benefits on how to provide them.

Other initiatives include diverting city or town money to local abortion funds; creating a multilingual, public awareness campaign on how to find abortion care in Massachusetts; launching a ballot question on changing city code to gender-neutral language; passing resolutions to encourage public or private universities to expand access to medication abortion; and auditing pharmacies to ensure they are complying with state laws that call for dispensing emergency contraception without a prescription and providing a year’s worth of contraception without cost sharing.

Reproductive Equity Now, along with ACLU of Massachusetts and Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts, led the push for the Roe Act, which protected abortion rights in state law in anticipation they would be overturned by the Supreme Court. The three groups formed the Beyond Roe Coalition to champion another state law, enacted in July, that further expanded abortion rights, shielded patients and providers in Massachusetts from prosecution elsewhere, and protected gender-affirming care.

Once known as NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, Reproductive Equity Now was reconstituted last year after NARAL Pro-Choice America decided to eliminate support for affiliates in 11 states. Massachusetts organizers wanted to maintain a focus on grassroots advocacy, anticipating the battle over abortion rights would turn to the states.

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“We want to meet the fight where it is and we know that the anti-choice movement has been building power on the local level for four decades,” Hart Holder said. “This is the long game.”

“Our movement has done a real disservice to itself by being myopic on federal work,” she added.

Antiabortion groups are also pushing new, often symbolic initiatives on the local level as a statement of community values. Individual cities have been enacting bans, declaring their territories to be “sanctuary cities for the unborn,” mainly in Texas, where abortion is already prohibited with no exceptions for rape or incest.

In recent months, abortion rights groups have enlisted cities and towns to push back against crisis pregnancy centers, the antiabortion facilities that often look like abortion clinics but help only those who continue their pregnancies. Planned Parenthood has issued model legislation that would ban the centers from communities or restrict misleading advertising from them.


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