The Massachusetts legislature on Tuesday overrode Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto of legislation establishing a right to abortion and expanding access to late-term procedures as blue states erect pro-choice firewalls against a conservative-trending Supreme Court.
The Democratic-controlled state Senate voted 32-8 to override the Mr. Baker’s Christmas Eve veto of H. 5179, better known as the ROE Act, mustering the necessary two-thirds vote a day after the state House overrode the veto by 107-46.
“Beginning today, pregnant people who once faced near-insurmountable barriers accessing abortion care can now seize the right to control their own bodies,” said Democratic state Sen. Harriette Chandler, the bill’s Senate sponsor, in a statement.
In addition to enshrining a right to abortion in state law, the Massachusetts bill lowers from 18 to 16 the age at which patients may undergo abortions without parental consent; allows abortions after 24 weeks’ gestation in cases of fatal fetal abnormalities and to “preserve the patient’s physical or mental health,” and permits nurse practitioners and nurse midwives to terminate pregnancies.
The 24-week mark is significant because it signals the start of the third trimester in the 40-week pregnancy and the increased viability of the fetus. About 60-70% of babies born at 24 weeks’ gestation survive, according to the University of Utah.
While pro-choice organizations hailed the bill’s passage as a victory for “true reproductive freedom,” Massachusetts Citizens for Life accused legislators of ramming through the measure by “inserting it into the state budget, knowing our opposition could not fight it in person due to quarantine restrictions.”
“In an elitist gesture that not only ignored the governor’s common-sense rejection of special interests’ items in a state budget bill, but also tens of thousands of their constituents’ vocal opposition, the legislature has sent a clear message to Massachusetts citizens: We work for the abortion lobby, not for you or the public health,” said Myrna Maloney Flynn, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life.
The Catholic Action League said the measure “will reduce the age of parental or judicial consent for minors seeking abortions, remove born alive protections for infants who survived abortion, lower the medical criteria for late term abortions, and make abortions more dangerous for women by allowing midwifes and nurse practitioners to perform them.”
In a year dominated by policy debates over the novel coronavirus, the Massachusetts law’s passage came as an indication that the gulf between the states on abortion access is widening.
A dozen states, including Illinois, Maine, Nevada, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia, passed laws lifting abortion restrictions in 2019-20, spurred by pro-choice advocates warning of a possible Supreme Court crackdown.
Meanwhile, 17 Southern and Midwestern states passed “heartbeat” bills or other restrictions on gestational access in 2019, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Most of the measures, including Alabama’s near-total ban, have been challenged in court.
Initially, Massachusetts Democratic leaders had agreed to take up bills related only to the budget and pandemic relief in the extended legislative session, but pro-choice groups turned up the heat after Justice Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed Oct. 26, raising questions about the future of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
The ROE Act Coalition, which includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts and Planned Parenthood, cheered the state legislature for rejecting Mr. Baker’s proposed amendments, which would have kept the requirement on parental consent for minors.
“Today, the commonwealth reestablished itself as a national leader in health care by removing political barriers to abortion and becoming the first state to legislatively ease burdensome restrictions on young people’s access to care,” the coalition said in a statement.
Mr. Baker, a pro-choice Republican, also had sought civil penalties for medical practitioners who violate the conditions on performing third-trimester abortions, as well as keeping the “substantial risk” requirement for late-term abortions.
State law had previously permitted abortions at 24 weeks or later only to “save the life of the mother, or if a continuation of her pregnancy will impose on her a substantial risk of grave impairment of her physical or mental health.”
Mr. Baker’s proposed amendments, including a requirement for medical professionals to keep life-saving equipment on hand under his proposed amendments, were rejected by the legislature.
The legislation also removed a section of the law requiring physicians to “take all reasonable steps” to save the life of an aborted child born alive, which supporters called unnecessary, prompting critics to accuse legislators of passing an “infanticide” measure.
Currently 37 states have parental consent or notification requirements for underage abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, but the ROE Act makes Massachusetts the first state to affirm that older teens may undergo the procedure without parental involvement.
“Massachusetts has become the first state to legislatively ease burdensome restrictions on young people’s access to care, ensuring 16 and 17-year olds will no longer be forced to obtain a parent’s permission or endure a shame-inducing court process to receive abortion care,” said Planned Parenthood.
Former New England Patriots star Benjamin Watson, a pro-life advocate, said that 16- and 17-year-olds “need parental consent to receive Tylenol from the school nurse, yet the #RoeAct would allow these same children to kill their own preborn children without parental involvement. What are we doing?”
While Massachusetts is a dependably blue state, the large number of Catholic state legislators had beaten back ambitious pro-choice legislation in the past.
C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League, blamed Catholic religious officials and organizations for failing to rebuke lawmakers who hold pro-choice views.
“None of the Catholics who voted for this life-ending measure will suffer a word of rebuke from any priest or prelate in Massachusetts,” Mr. Doyle said. “There will be no critical articles about them in the Catholic press. No one will be denied Holy Communion. No one will be expelled from the Knights of Columbus.”
He said such silence “equals consent,” and that given the silence, “no rational person can reasonably be expected to take seriously Catholic opposition to the killing of the unborn in Massachusetts.”