Rep. Lewis: ‘Long way to go’ for reproductive justice in Mass.

Massachusetts State House. (Photo by Aaron Ye/BU News Service)

By Anju Miura
BU News Service

FRAMINGHAM – Massachusetts has “so much work yet to do” regarding reproductive justice and needs to update sex education in schools and expand abortion access, state Rep. Jack Lewis, D-Framingam told a public forum on Tuesday night.

Senate President Karen Spilka and Reps. Maria Robinson, D-Framingham, Lewis and Carmine Gentile, D-Sudbury co-hosted “Breaking the Cycle of Shame” at the Framingham Public Library Tuesday to discuss legislation to protect reproductive rights, which they support.

“We have good laws in Massachusetts. (But,) we still have a long way to go,” said Lewis before a crowd of 80 people. Lewis spoke in Spilka’s absence.

He spoke about the state’s existing law on reproductive health care. Massachusetts currently restricts abortion after 24 weeks, requires minors to get a consent from a parent or guardian and in some cases a judge.

“In some cases, women actually have to travel out of state,” Lewis said. They have to have enough money and resources and time to fly to actually get comprehensive reproductive health care, that’s not offered here. When I share that with people, a conversation shifts.”

A measure called the ROE Act, which Lewis co-sponsored, aims to protect and expand abortion access.

“If we can’t take charge of this most personal aspect of our lives, we can’t take care of anything,” said Robinson, the first-term Framingham Democrat and another co-sponsor of the ROE Act. “It should not be seen as a privilege or benefit but a fundamental human right.”

The Forum, co-sponsored by the MetroWest Commission on the Status of Women, hosted panelists Brandon Adams, a Framingham State University student and board member of the Department of Education’s Safe and Supportive School’s Commission; Mehreen Butt, associate director of Policy for Planned Parenthood; Kim Comatas, lead teacher at Partners in Sex Education; Lisa MacDonald, director of equity compliance at MassBay Community College and Title IX coordinator and affirmative action officer; and Kate Sanetra-Butler, founder and executive director of Dignity Matters.

“Everyone has the right to control their body,” said Framingham Mayor Yvone Spicer, who supports reproductive rights, especially promoting equal health care access for women of color.

Spicer said women of color are more likely to face obstacles to receive the proper reproductive health care, which sometimes lead to fatalities.

“I am deeply committed to this and (to make) sure that everyone has a right to control her body,” she said.

Heather Panahi, chairwoman of the MetroWest Commission on the Status of Women, cautioned against misunderstanding the term reproductive justice as only meaning abortion access.

“It’s not a label. It’s a mission,” she said.

Every person should have their right to make decisions over their gender, sexuality, health care and family, Panahi said.

Lewis, one of the co-sponsors of the Healthy Youth Act, which will ensure medically accurate, age-appropriate sex education in every school, said the Legislature has worked to promote residents’ welfare. However, he said the state has to move forward to serve reproductive justice, such as updating sex education.

“We keep finding we keep fighting for common sense (like) health classes that are medically accurate, and we keep hitting roadblocks,” he said.

“Until we pass the Healthy Youth Act, we can’t guarantee that a kid in public school is going to learn anything about consent, anything about healthy relationships,” he said.

Lewis realized the schools need to review sex education curriculum years ago through his conversation with young students, who did not learn about LGBTQ rights, consensual education and healthy relationships in their health classes.

Panelists also spoke about other reproductive-related proposals, such as adapting school policies on sexual assault, supporting pregnant women’s rights and promoting health care accessibility and gender equality.

“Period poverty” is another issue poor women face, said Senetra-Butler, whose organization provides menstrual products for poor women and girls. The lack of access to menstrual products can cause women who cannot afford menstrual products to miss work and girls to miss school.

“It’s a health issue. It’s an issue of hygiene, but it’s an issue of a lack of opportunity,” she said.

Attendees also learned about reproductive-related issues and women’s rights at the information tables staffed by nonprofit organizations, such as the League of Women Voters in Framingham, Voices Against Violence, RIA House, Dignity Matters, Planned Parenthood, Dana Hall Peer Education Program, Women’s Suffrage Centennial Celebration, Jewish Family Services and Mazie Mentoring Program.

“I feel like we, women, need to work together and we’re much stronger when we work together,” said Panahi in an interview before the forum. “If we’re not advancing each other’s rights, you know, I don’t know who will do it for us.”

This article was originally published on Metrowest Daily News.

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