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Editorial

With rights in peril, Mass. needs abortion law update

(Elise Amendola/AP)

When several conservative states this year passed measures designed to severely limit access to reproductive choices, much was said about scenarios where women and girls would be forced to seek a safe and legal abortion in other states.

According to abortion rights advocates, that’s already happening in deep-blue Massachusetts. Minors here need either parental consent or a judge’s permission, known as judicial bypass, to get an abortion. Barring that, they travel either to New York, Connecticut, or Vermont, where there are no such consent requirements.

A bill called the ROE Act would rectify that by eliminating the parental consent requirement for minors. It would also allow abortion access after the usual legal limit of 24 weeks, in the rare cases of women facing fatal fetal anomalies. (Fatal fetal abnormalities are any severe conditions affecting a fetus that will likely result in a stillbirth. An example is achondrogenesis, which severely affects development of the skeleton and muscles.)

Both sides of this contentious issue played out at the State House recently, as the ROE Act received its first hearing before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. The timing was no accident: With states anticipating further erosion of Roe v. Wade from a conservative-leaning Supreme Court, there’s a rush to codify into law protections and extensions of abortion rights at the state level.

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A study showed that between 2010 and 2016, 77 percent of minors in Massachusetts who got abortions received parental consent, while 23 percent used judicial bypass. It’s impossible to know how many girls leave the state to get an abortion, or are deterred altogether by the obstacles.

Still, this much is clear from the study: Judicial bypass is more common among teenage girls of color and those from impoverished backgrounds. That’s often the case with abortion restrictions — those who are already vulnerable have fewer resources and are further victimized by capricious laws. Also, going through the courts for consent means it takes longer for them to get an abortion.

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In a perfect world, such conversations would be confined to living rooms instead of courtrooms, but no one can legislate family dynamics or communication. Every situation is different, but there are probably legitimate reasons why a girl would choose not to tell her parents about an unexpected pregnancy. That shouldn’t require her to go to another state to end it.

That should also apply in cases of fatal fetal anomalies. Some women in such cases travel as far away as Mexico to terminate a pregnancy after 24 weeks. As the state law currently stands, the only way women can get an abortion after 24 weeks is if the health of the mother is at risk. But requiring a woman to deliver a fetus that’s unable to survive is inhumane. Such cases are rare, and abortion rights supporters say fewer than 50 cases a year in Massachusetts would fall under the act’s provisions (24 weeks would remain the limit for ordinary pregnancies).

Governor Charlie Baker has not indicated whether he would sign the ROE Act into law if it makes it through the House and Senate. He has said he supports the current law, but said in a radio interview: “I certainly would not want somebody in that situation to feel like they had to go somewhere else other than Massachusetts to get that problem solved.” Passage of the ROE Act would solve that problem, and relieve an unnecessary burden for girls and women who want to exercise their reproductive rights in the state where they live.

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