An attempt by Democrats on Beacon Hill to expand abortion access in Massachusetts has run into harsh blowback from the state Republican Party, which has adopted the rhetoric of President Trump and antiabortion activists.
The party has launched Facebook ads accusing individual Democratic cosponsors of supporting “infanticide” through the bill that would permit abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy in cases where the fetus has a fatal anomaly and is not expected to survive. Massachusetts law currently allows an abortion after 24 weeks only if necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.
“This bill fails the feeblest standard for a decent and humane society,” Republican Party Chairman Jim Lyons said. “Nothing would be done to protect or even comfort a baby who survives a late-term abortion.”
The new GOP rhetoric is in stark contrast to years past, when the party tried to steer clear of heated social issues, as the party’s standardbearers — from William Weld to Paul Cellucci to Jane Swift and the current governor, Charlie Baker — found success with fiscally conservative but socially moderate stances. Lyons’s aggressive move seems to point to a new, confrontational approach.
The bill would strike language that currently requires, in the rare event that a late abortion is unsuccessful, that a doctor take reasonable steps to preserve the baby’s life and health. But reproductive rights advocates say such cases are almost unheard of and that a doctor trying to save the mother would always try to save a baby, if possible. The new provision is aimed at allowing abortions for fetuses that cannot survive — such as those with anencephaly, a condition in which the fetus fails to develop a brain.
Pregnant women who get such a diagnosis now must either complete the pregnancy — anticipating that the baby will die soon after birth, if not before — or travel to terminate the pregnancy in a state where the procedure is legal.
“Telling a family that their baby is not expected to survive is one of the most difficult parts of my job,” said Dr. Luu Ireland, a Central Massachusetts ob-gyn who also works as an advocate for Physicians for Reproductive Health. “It frustrates me when I have walked this difficult road with my patients only to have to send them across the country to a physician they have never met to provide care that I am capable of providing here but cannot legally do so in this state.’’
The Massachusetts bill is part of a nationwide campaign by reproductive rights groups to preserve and expand access in liberal states, at a time when more conservative states are reining in abortion rights — and conservatives are hoping the newly conservative Supreme Court will overturn the 46-year-old ruling that made abortion legal. More than half of Massachusetts legislators have signed on as cosponsors of House and Senate versions of the bill.
But the state Republican Party, now under Lyons’s leadership, intends to make the measure politically uncomfortable for lawmakers in certain districts, including those considered competitive for Republicans. Lyons, formerly a legislator from North Andover, had been the leading abortion foe on Beacon Hill before he lost reelection in November.
The GOP approach puts Baker in an uncomfortable spot. The governor frowned upon his party’s loaded rhetoric on Monday, though he did not go so far as to condemn it.
“I’ve made pretty clear that I have a particular approach to this public policy process in Massachusetts,” Baker said. “I don’t believe in questioning motives. I don’t believe in questioning character, and I think the inflated language that exists on all sides in politics has made it much harder for people to do the work that they’re supposed to do on behalf the people they serve and they represent.”
However, the governor — who had just signed into law an emergency measure replacing federal family planning funding cut by the Trump administration with $8 million in state money — also said he does not favor new exceptions for abortions after 24 weeks.
“I don’t support late-term abortions,” he said. “I support current law here in Massachusetts. It’s worked well for decades for women and families here in Massachusetts.”
The bill, called “An Act to Remove Obstacles to Expand Abortion Access,” or ROE Act, would remove the requirement that anyone under 18 have either parental or judicial consent to get an abortion. It also would allow abortions after 24 weeks in the cases of fatal fetal anomalies.
The bill removes “medically unnecessary, politically motivated, and often insurmountable restrictions” to abortion care in Massachusetts, said Tricia Wajda, vice president of external affairs for the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts. She called it “common-sense legislation” that reflects the values of the majority of Massachusetts residents, who support abortion rights.
But abortion opponents sprang into action on the bill in recent weeks, lobbying their representatives on Beacon Hill and rallying on Saturday on the Boston Common, chanting “No to Roe,” and calling the measure radical.
Conservatives have seized upon similar efforts in other states as evidence of extremism in the abortion rights movement. When New York lawmakers voted to allow later abortions to protect the health of the mother and to end a non-viable pregnancy, opponents falsely claimed that it would permit abortions until the moment of birth. And in his State of the Union address, President Trump incorrectly claimed that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said that “he would execute a baby after birth.” Northam had fumbled an explanation on his state’s abortion proposal, saying it would let a mother to decide not to resuscitate a live birth after a botched abortion.
But Rebecca Hart Holder, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, said she’s not aware of any such cases of unsuccessful abortions.
“That’s not how medicine works,” she said. “What I can tell you is extreme antichoice politicians and organizations are pushing misinformation and lies.”
“It’s outrageous,” said Representative Jay Livingstone, one of the lead sponsors, who was personally targeted on Facebook ads. He said Lyons “has always been antichoice, antiscience, similar to our president, who is doing whatever he can to end a woman’s ability to control her own body.”
“I’m disappointed that the governor, who’s the top elected official of that party, hasn’t condemned it,” Livingstone added. “It’s unfortunate that when there’s a discussion of medical procedures, that people will use misleading inflammatory rhetoric like that to try to get their way.”