By Haley Lerner
BU News Service
BOSTON – Leaders in the state are pushing to pass an act that expands abortion access statewide after the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The vacancy on the high court has caused abortion rights activists to worry that President Donald Trump will fill the seat with a conservative justice who would vote to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that granted women the right to choose to have an abortion.
Now, elected officials and advocates in Massachusetts are urging passage of the ROE Act, a bill that grants women the right to end pregnancies after 24 weeks in cases of lethal fetal anomalies and allows minors who do not have parental consent to get abortions with the approval of a doctor instead of a judge.
The bill also aims to include abortion in the pregnancy-related safety-net coverage for Massachusetts residents who are ineligible for MassHealth coverage.
The bill has been sitting on Beacon Hill since it was first proposed in January 2019. Activists are hoping the extended legislative session, because of the COVID-19 pandemic delays, will provide the opportunity for the House and Senate to act.
Rebecca Hart Holder, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, said the state should set itself as a leader for abortion access when “the threat to reproductive freedom is even greater than it was before.”
“This is really a moment for the commonwealth to distinguish itself nationally and to really trust the women and pregnant people who are seeking abortion care,” she said.
Holder said Massachusetts laws that delay access to abortion create stigma and shame for women, particularly the requirement that young people must go through the court system to obtain consent for an abortion without parental permission.
“That law disproportionately impacts low-income people and young people of color, forcing them to delay care and sometimes to even travel out of state because many of our surrounding states don’t have that law on the books,” Holder said.
Senate President Emerita Harriette Chandler, D-Worcester, lead sponsor of the bill, said the state must act now that there is a real threat of Roe v. Wade being overturned.
“Justice Ginsburg understood that a right is truly not a right if not everyone can access it, and that’s the current situation with abortion care in Massachusetts,” Chandler said.
Chandler said all decisions about abortion should be made between a woman and her medical professional.
“It would be a wonderful way to pay tribute to Justice Ginsburg to remove medically unnecessary barriers which undermine the legal right to abortion and disproportionately harm already vulnerable people,” she said.
Jennifer Childs-Roshak, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, said the commonwealth must address the nationwide threat to reproductive rights.
“It is problematic what’s happening outside of Massachusetts,” Childs-Roshak said. “It is a real threat that Roe v. Wade could get overturned. This is not imaginary anymore; it is a real legitimate threat.”
She said passing the ROE Act will help ease uncertainty for women across the state.
“We know that Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly support access to safe and legal abortion,” Childs-Roshak said. “So we know that the support is there for the people of Massachusetts and for the majority of legislators.”
Dr. Smita Carroll, an OB-GYN who practices in Central Massachusetts, said the ROE Act is essential to ensure she can provide the safest care to her patients. She said she had a patient, who after getting pregnant through in vitro fertilization, was diagnosed with a lethal fetal anomaly around 22 weeks into her pregnancy, meaning her baby would not survive.
State law only allows an abortion after 24 weeks if it will be life-saving for the mother, so Carroll’s patient only had two weeks to choose. Unable to decide in time, the patient had to wait until she was full term to go into labor, which her baby did not survive.
“It is my job to support my patients throughout each of these moments, and it truly breaks my heart that she felt that she did not have enough time to make a decision that could have significantly changed how she processed the loss of her child,” Carroll said.
While more than half of the members of each state legislative branch have co-sponsored the bill, some pro-life advocates believe the ROE Act will endanger women.
C.J. Williams, director of community engagement for Massachusetts Citizens for Life, said she thinks the bill is “anti-feminist.”
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a great proponent of women’s rights, and we respect her for that,” Williams said. “She absolutely, I think, missed how dangerous it is to base rights on violence, and abortion is an act of violence. To push for a bill that’s really poorly written that endangers our infants and endangers women is awful.”
Myrna Maloney Flynn, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, said in a written statement that she is confident Trump’s Supreme Court nominee will share her organization’s “life-affirming values.” She said abortion is already accessible statewide and that the bill “solves nothing.”
The four Roman Catholic bishops of Massachusetts spoke out strongly against the ROE Act after it was first introduced, including Worcester Bishop Robert J. McManus.
“At a time when the overall number of abortions have decreased, society cannot now accept such an egregious attack on human life as these bills would provide,” the bishops wrote in a statement from April 2019 calling on elected officials to oppose the ROE Act.
But statewide and locally, many politicians are voicing their support.
On Monday, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey wrote on Twitter that “our country is staring down a constitutional crisis and the erosion of reproductive freedom. We cannot wait another minute. The Massachusetts Legislature must pass the ROE Act and urgently move to codify Roe v. Wade in our state.”
Sen. Michael Moore, D-Worcester, said the Legislature is currently very busy grappling with other issues, so the more people who make calls and voice their support for the women’s right to choose will help push the bill along.
“If someone is appointed [to the Supreme Court] in the next six weeks, we’re not going to see a change here in Massachusetts in the next several months,” Moore said. “We’ve got time to act, but long-term, it’s something that we should address.”
Rep. David LeBoeuf, D-Worcester, said the ROE Act would help women whose only choice is to travel out of state if they want an abortion after 24 weeks.
“This is one of the most difficult and heart-wrenching choices that someone will have to make,” LeBoeuf said. “To have an extra financial burden and legal hoops to be able to do what’s best in the interest of one’s family goes against the spirit of everything that Justice Ginsburg fought for.”
This article was originally published in The Telegram.