Lawmakers express discomfort over teen abortions without parental consent
Even before it faces its first hearing on Beacon Hill Monday, an ambitious legislative effort to expand abortion access in Massachusetts has run into opposition from lawmakers who consider it to be an overreach.
Most concerning to legislators is the proposed elimination of an age restriction that requires anyone under 18 to have a parent’s consent or a judge’s order to get an abortion. The notion that a girl as young as 12 could get an abortion without telling her parents is proving to be a tough proposition, even in liberal Massachusetts, where most lawmakers consider themselves supporters of abortion rights.
A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll released Tuesday also found ambivalence among voters. Asked about eliminating “the requirement that minors obtain permission from a parent or a judge before getting an abortion,” 46 percent said they supported that aspect of the legislation, while 41.3 percent said they were in opposition. The poll had a margin of error of 4 percent.
Ronald Mariano, the House majority leader, expressed concern last week that abortion rights advocates are pushing lawmakers past their comfort zones and that the measure, as written, would not garner enough votes in the House to override a possible veto by Governor Charlie Baker. Mariano is not yet satisfied with the bill himself.
“I haven’t made up my mind yet. I want to know how the whole [parental] consent thing gets worked out,” he said.
The bill is part of a nationwide campaign to defend abortion access and create oases for women from states that are losing abortion clinics under pressure from conservative legislatures. As they did in New York and Illinois, reproductive-rights advocates in Massachusetts hope to codify in state law the right to an abortion as interpreted by the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.
The so-called Roe Act is being pushed by NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts. They seek to eliminate the age limit, saying the judicial bypass process creates an unreasonable burden for a young woman to get an abortion if she doesn’t feel safe in telling her parents.
The Roe Act would also allow women to have abortions late in pregnancies that are threatened by fatal fetal anomalies. (Currently, a woman can only get an abortion in Massachusetts after 24 weeks if necessary to protect her life or health.)
The latter provision has been generating most of the heat, with abortion opponents adopting the language and misconceptions used by President Trump to claim that it would allow late abortions for any reason, up until delivery. The Massachusetts Republican Party has been attacking Democratic cosponsors with targeted Facebook ads accusing them of supporting “infanticide.”
“We are not going to let this proud cradle of liberty become a shameful cradle of death,” said Bernadette Lyons, an antiabortion activist, at a State House rally against the bill beside her husband, MassGOP chairman Jim Lyons.
Democratic state Representative Jay Livingstone, one of the lead sponsors of the bill in the House, told abortion rights advocates last week that proponents are “fighting an uphill battle in a way that I don’t think people appreciate in Massachusetts,” he said. “We’re swimming a little bit against the tide.”
But lawmakers also believe their constituents can see past the hyperbole, and the Suffolk/Globe poll showed support for abortion in cases of fatal anomalies. Sixty-four percent of respondents said they support a bill that would “allow women to obtain an abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy in cases of fatal fetal anomalies,” compared to 23.3 percent who said they opposed it.
The poll of 600 registered voters was conducted by the Suffolk University Political Research Center between June 5 and June 9.
Of greater concern to lawmakers now is the age limit. The notion of letting underage girls get abortions on their own is discomfiting even for some members who are women, Democrats, and supporters of abortion rights.
Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia A. Haddad, the other lead sponsor of the bill, said she understands. She has three granddaughters.
“I’d lose my mind if one of them turned up pregnant and went off and had an abortion without a family member or somebody there with her,” she acknowledged. But she said the bill is aimed at teenagers who lack such support from their families.
“Most people, I think, try to make sure that their girls are supported and feel like they can always turn to a parent,” she said. “But this is for a small percentage of people who don’t have that.”
Rebecca Hart Holder, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, said that the poll questions may capture people’s “knee-jerk reaction” but that advocates have found success when they have thoughtful conversations about teens’ access to abortion.
Not every teenager has parents she can consult about an unwanted pregnancy, she noted. And not every teen could navigate the judicial process to get permission for an abortion without it.
“This is an issue that’s hard to capture in a sound bite, so I’m not surprised by those numbers and I’m also not scared by them,” Hart Holder said.
Public debate on the bill kicks off Monday with a hearing before the joint legislative Judiciary Committee. The bill attracted as cosponsors 92 of the House’s 160 members and 22 of the Senate’s 40 members but could create more controversy if and when lawmakers are asked to vote on its thorny particulars.
Rhode Island, the most Catholic state in the country, according to a Public Religion Research Institute report, recently rejected a bill that would codify the right to an abortion in state law. Legislators are trying again there, having recently advanced a bill through a different Senate committee.
Polls continue to show that Americans are broadly supportive of the right to abortion provided under Roe v. Wade, but they favor restrictions rather than unchecked access.
An NPR/Marist poll this month found that 77 percent of voters believe that Roe should stand — but that among those supporters, 26 percent want more restrictions, compared to 21 percent who want abortion available under any circumstance.
In the current polarized political climate, noisy advocates on both ends of the debate are pushing lawmakers for more clear-cut distinctions.
Mariano, for instance, took umbrage at the news that advocates had lowered their ranking of his support for the bill based on the challenges he presented them in a meeting.
“I was viewed as being anti-Roe v. Wade,” Mariano said. “I’m not. I just need to understand, ‘What does this do? How many people does this affect? When does it occur?’ ”
Haddad said she has asked the Judiciary Committee chairman to investigate what other states, like Connecticut and Maryland, have done to expand abortion access for minors. She does not want the parental-consent provision to hold up the larger bill.
“If we’re not able to come to something good, then some things may have to remain the same for a while until we have to figure out the better way to do it,” Haddad said. “But you don’t make the perfect the enemy of good.”