Metro

Massachusetts repeals long-dormant ban on abortion

Boston, MA., 07/27/18, Governor Charlie Baker signed legislation repealing the state's archaic anti-abortion laws. They've not been enforced for decades but this is partly in fear of what might happen at the US Supreme Court. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Governor Charlie Baker signed the legislation Friday.

Governor Charlie Baker formally repealed a series of “antiquated and inappropriate” state laws Friday, including one that made abortion illegal in the state, a measure that had been unenforced for decades.

Massachusetts’s laws restricting abortion became obsolete after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. But fears that President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh could be confirmed and tip the court toward reversing its landmark 1973 ruling pushed state legislators to advance the bill with increased urgency.

Prior to signing the bill, the governor acknowledged those concerns.

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“This particular legislation takes on new meaning, given some of the endeavors and activities taking place at the federal level,” Baker said. “I am honored and thrilled to be here to sign this bill partly to make a statement, but also to make clear that here in Massachusetts, we will not compromise on a woman’s right to her own decisions.”

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The new law eliminates a number of 19th-century abortion restrictions. It also strikes down contraception restrictions included in some of those provisions and removes laws punishing adultery and fornication with fines or imprisonment.

The governor was joined Friday by legislative leaders who pushed the bill forward, including newly elected Senate President Karen Spilka, former Senate president Harriette Chandler, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

Chandler, who sponsored the legislation, said it was not an “overnight success.”

“It took a while from people making fun of it and saying ‘Why do you have to do that?’ ” she said.

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Chandler said Roe’s more precarious position under the Trump Administration added urgency to the issue.

Some have argued that Moe v. Secretary of Administration and Finance, a 1981 Supreme Judicial Court ruling, protects abortion rights in the state regardless of the old laws or federal rulings, but some legal experts and abortion rights advocates have said the decision’s ambiguity was enough to justify the repeal effort.

Across the country states have reacted differently to the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned. Some have moved to ensure new restrictions are swiftly put in place if the court reverses its now decades-old decision. Among these are four states — Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, and South Dakota — that have “trigger bans,” which are laws that would very quickly, or even immediately, restrict abortion if Roe were to fall, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

At the same time, others have taken steps both before and after Trump’s election to ensure continued abortion protections regardless of Roe’s fate. Delaware’s governor signed a law last summer that protects abortion rights, and other states have considered similar legislation.

Rebecca Hart Holder, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, which advocated for Massachusetts’s law, said at the bill signing that the rights it upholds are women’s “fundamental ability” to control their lives, their economic circumstances, their finances, and their futures.

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“This fight goes way beyond Roe,” Holder said. “This is a battle for the very heart and soul of our country and the result is nothing less than whether or not women will be second-class citizens for generations to come.”

Anti-abortion advocates were disappointed with Baker’s decision to sign the legislation.

Andrew Beckwith, president of the conservative Massachusetts Family Institute, said that because there was no immediate threat that abortion might become illegal in the state, the move demonstrates the legislators’ “obsession with the abortion agenda.”

“The proponents of this legislation have liked to call the laws they’re now repealing archaic, but I’m looking forward to the day when the barbaric practice of killing children in their mothers’ wombs is archaic itself,” he said.

Massachusetts has passed a number of laws in recent years related to women’s rights, including a bill protecting pregnant workers that the governor signed last year. Baker, a Republican, is up for reelection this fall.

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