Metro

Mass. House OK’s repeal of 19th-century law that criminalized abortion

The Legislature is poised to send to the governor a bill that would overturn a 19th-century state law criminalizing abortion in Massachusetts — a preemptive move, supporters said, in case the US Supreme Court overturns its ruling on Roe v. Wade.

On Wednesday, the House passed its version of the legislation that would repeal a set of abortion restrictions that have not been enforced in the state for decades. The bill also removed from the books other state laws that criminalized adultery and fornication.

“Today’s vote became more important than ever to show that we here in Massachusetts especially will always stand for women’s rights,” said House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo after the vote. Senate President Harriette Chandler, who said she first sponsored the bill two years ago, called the repeal “essential” now. She said she hopes the bill — which still needs final approval from both chambers — will be on the governor’s desk “as soon as possible.”

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“This is about sending a message, about protecting women’s rights, about doing something that frankly should have been done many, many years ago,” Chandler said.

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In passing the bill, many lawmakers cited concerns over whether Trump’s most recent nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, might eventually tilt the court in favor of overturning its landmark decision on Roe v. Wade, allowing states to outlaw abortion again.

And while a 1981 state high court decision strongly suggests the Massachusetts Constitution protects abortion rights, advocates say it’s not explicit and needed clarification from Beacon Hill.

Rebecca Hart Holder, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, said she was “absolutely delighted” about the bill’s passage.

The bill would also eliminate archaic state laws that criminalized adultery and fornication with punishments of imprisonment or fines.

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The bill would go into effect immediately if approved by Governor Charlie Baker, who has not said yet whether he would sign it into law. But a spokesman for Baker said he “supports full access to women’s health care and family planning services.”

“While the Massachusetts Constitution provides greater protection for a woman’s right to choose than what exists at the federal level, the Baker-Polito administration opposes any measures to erode these protections here in the Commonwealth” said Lizzy Guyton, the Governor’s communications director.

C.J. Doyle, executive director of Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, called the bill’s passage “hasty, historionic, and gratuitous.”

“It seems to be a matter of pandering to Planned Parenthood and the abortion industry rather than substantive legislation,” he said.

Jamie Halper can be reached at jamie.halper@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jamiedhalper.