Massachusetts Democrats are inching toward expanding the right to abortion, giving physicians greater discretion to perform abortions later in pregnancy.
The “Removing Obstacles and Expanding Access to Women’s Reproductive Health,” or ROE, Act is meant to codify in state law the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling, which legalized abortion nationwide, as other states pass abortion bans in the hope of overturning it .
Currently, Massachusetts law prohibits abortions after a gestational age at which the fetus would be viable outside of the womb, about 24 weeks. The ROE Act would allow for abortions after that stage of pregnancy in certain circumstances, based on a doctor’s judgment.
The first such situation would be if a doctor concludes that the fetus would have “lethal fetal anomalies” — that is, if there were no prospect for the fetus to survive outside the womb.
The second, and more controversial circumstance, would be if the doctor determined that the abortion was necessary for the sake of the mother’s physical, emotional, or psychological health.
Abortion opponents say that those provisions are vaguely written and would allow women to seek an abortion for any reason at any point during pregnancy. State Republican Party Chairman Jim Lyons called the measure an “extreme infanticide act.”
Anti-abortion advocates say, for instance, a woman could make specious claims about her mental health and wellness and insist that pregnancy and motherhood would inflict extreme psychological harm in order to obtain an abortion.
C.J. Williams, digital media strategist for Massachusetts Citizens for Life, told the Washington Examiner that the bill is not “pro-choice” but rather “abortion promotion.”
Williams was one of many anti-abortion activists at the bill’s June 17th hearing, during which the statehouse’s Gardner Auditorium was a sea of pink and red, worn by the bill’s proponents and opponents respectively.
In conversation with the Washington Examiner, Williams said most Bay Staters oppose “extreme” legislation like the ROE Act. But an October 2018 poll of registered Massachusetts voters by MassINC Polling Group in collaboration with NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts found otherwise. The state-wide survey concluded that 83% of Massachusetts residents believe abortion should be legal in most cases, and 76% support a provision allowing late-term abortions in cases of lethal fetal anomaly or to protect the mother’s health.
Another controversial provision in the bill would repeal a requirement that minors get parental consent to have abortions,
Anti-abortion groups make the argument that without parental consent for their daughter’s abortion, a sexual abuser responsible for the unintended pregnancy could coerce his victim to undergo the procedure, thus eliminating evidence of his crime.
They also say that, as school nurses have to get permission from parents to give students aspirin, so should minors have to get parental permission to get abortions.
On the other side of the debate, abortion-rights advocates say that repealing mandatory parental consent is necessary for cases in which young women don’t feel they can talk to their parents about sexuality.
Dr. Katharine White, a Massachusetts OB/GYN said to the Boston Globe, “Most teens do talk to their parents when they become pregnant…Those girls who don’t tell their parents have good reasons: They are not safe at home, are victims of violence or incest, or may be kicked out of their homes.”
In the event that a minor in Massachusetts does not get parental consent, she must apply for judicial bypass to seek an abortion, which happens in about 23% of cases. The judicial bypass process could be lengthy. The average wait time for a decision is 14 days, and it includes submitting an application to a county judge, who concludes, in consultation with the woman’s doctor, whether the woman is sufficiently mature and informed.
Dr. White said judicial bypass “delays the abortion until further in pregnancy, increasing the procedure’s risks.”
The ROE Act is in its very early stages. It was only presented on the House Floor in January by Democratic Reps. Patricia Haddad and Jay Livingstone. An aide for the state senator who presented the senate version of the bill, Harriette Chandler, said legislators could go back and forth on the bill until April 2020, but 24 of 34 Senate Democrats have cosponsored the bill in the majority-Democrat legislature.
Even if the bill passes in both chambers, it’s not clear if Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, would sign it, or if it would have enough votes to overcome a veto.
In 2018, Baker signed into law the The Negating Archaic Statutes Targeting Young Women Act, commonly known as the NASTY Women Act, which repealed a 173-year-old ban on “procuring a miscarriage,” meaning abortion, in response to fears that the Trump administration would take aim at Roe v. Wade.
Despite his past initiatives to bolster abortion rights, Baker has not publicly supported the ROE Act. MassLive reported in April that Baker said, “I do not support late term abortions… I support current law in Massachusetts. It’s worked well for decades for women and families here in Massachusetts, and that’s what we support.”