Hundreds of activists descended on Beacon Hill Monday for their first opportunity to weigh in on a bill that would expand abortion access in Massachusetts.
The rhetoric was, as expected, pitched.
“This is murder. It’s infanticide,” Abigail Young, director of New England Students for Life, told the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary.
She noted that politicians used to advocate that abortion be “safe, legal and rare.”
“We have already abandoned rare,” she said, “but if this bill passes, we’ll also abandon safe.”
Abortion rights defenders, conversely, accused their opponents of hyperbolic rhetoric and misinformation.
“All these audacious claims about this legislation are blatantly false,” said Senator Harriette L. Chandler, lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate. “They are intentionally misrepresentative. They are incredibly offensive. Make no mistake about it, they are lies.”
Still, she harkened to an era of back-alley abortions that opponents said is nowhere near imminent in Massachusetts, where abortion rights are recognized under the state Constitution. Some opponents of the measure characterized it as misplaced and reactionary, a response to more extreme efforts by states like Alabama to end almost all abortions.
“It’s apparent that this bill was written in a way that is, for lack of a better word, revenge against President Trump, against his Supreme Court additions, against what is happening in other states,” said Myrna Maloney Flynn, a Massachusetts Citizens for Life activist from Northampton.
“I think many people in this room would agree that enacting legislation based on what happened in other states makes no sense.”
The so-called Roe Act would codify the right to an abortion in state law and remove the requirement that minors get the consent of a parent or a judge. It would also allow women to terminate pregnancies with fatal anomalies after 24 weeks.
Representative Jay Livingstone, a lead sponsor, defended the need for the legislation by saying some state abortion restrictions that have been deemed unconstitutional under the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision remain on the books in Massachusetts.
A 24-hour waiting period, he noted, is not enforced because of court interpretations dependent upon Roe.
“Depending on what the Supreme Court does in enforcing Roe v. Wade, that could undermine the case law that’s calling some of the provisions in our current law unconstitutional,” he said.
Livingstone, Chandler, and fellow lead cosponsor Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad presented their bill with 28 other cosponsors, reflecting broad support among Democrats for abortion rights.
But Representative Colleen Garry, a Dracut Democrat who sits on the judicary committee, joined Republican members in peppering proponents with tough questions and in testifying against it.
“This legislation is extreme,” Garry testified, casting doubt on the reliability of medical diagnoses of fetal anomalies that could result in abortions. “Doctors are not all-knowing,” she said.
With pitched arguments and emotional testimony, the debate also presents political risks for proponents.
The Massachusetts Republican Party has targeted supporters of the bill with over-the-top rhetoric, accusing them of supporting infanticide.
At a rally in front of the State House early in the day, MassGOP chairman James Lyons painted an erroneous and grisly picture: “We are talking about a child born alive separated from his or her mother in an abortion clinic,” Lyons said, suggesting medical care would not be provided in the case of a botched abortion.
“What do you call that?” he said, repeating the question twice to elicit a chant of “Infanticide” from the crowd.
“Damn right, it’s infanticide,” Lyons said.
Proponents repeatedly tried to amp down the rhetoric, saying the concern is fictitious and that the bill focuses on pregnancies being terminated after 24 weeks because they are not viable outside the womb.
Facing such attacks, Democrats on the committee went on the offensive.
Representative Michael Day refused to let it pass when David Franks, chairman of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, seemed to blame abortion rights for an uptick in human trafficking.
“Do you have the statistics to back that up, or is that something you just made up?” Day asked. Franks told him he assumed, based on “national investigations,” that abortion providers were not reporting perpetrators of sexual abuse that ended with abortions.
If he couldn’t find the data, Franks said, “I will write a letter to the committee apologizing for making something up. But I am not making it up.”
Representative Christopher Hendricks, a Democrat who represents New Bedford and Acushnet, demanded that each abortion opponent who testified say whether they think a 13-year-old rape victim should be allowed to get an abortion.
Several said no.
Dr. Kerry Pound, a physician, drew fervent applause from abortion opponents with her answer:
“I’m always, always, always on the side of giving life of a chance,” she said, noting that a rapist should be penalized, but questioning, “Why does a baby deserve the death penalty?”