By Chris Lisinski
Lawmakers are on the verge of expanding access to abortion in Massachusetts over objections from Gov. Charlie Baker about sections of their proposal involving minors seeking the procedure and abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy.
With most House Democrats banding together, the House voted 107-46 on Monday to override the Republican governor’s Christmas Eve veto of legislation (H 5179) reforming reproductive rights.
The Senate adjourned Monday afternoon without tackling the matter, but plans to take up the bill on Tuesday, when it is expected to complete the override after voting several times in recent weeks to advance the bill.
If the Senate follows suit as expected, state law would codify abortion rights, make abortions more accessible to 16- and 17-year-olds, and allow the procedure after 24 weeks of pregnancy in some cases.
The bill is based on measures that had strong support throughout the 2019-2020 session from members in both branches, but only gained traction after this year’s elections and during lame duck sessions on Beacon Hill.
For most of the two-year session, legislation referred to as the ROE Act sat before the Judiciary Committee untouched after a lengthy and heated hearing.
Bill supporters raised the pressure to act on reproductive rights at the state level after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September and the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate confirmed Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court, widely viewed as a step that could jeopardize the precedent set in Roe v. Wade.
The legislation will enshrine abortion rights in state law, which backers argue is a crucial protection if the court changes any protections granted under Roe v. Wade, and will allow abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy in cases with a fatal fetal anomaly.
It will also lower the age, from 18 to 16, at which individuals can seek an abortion without first receiving the consent of a parent or a judge.
Supporters have said the existing threshold of 18 forces some teenagers — who can legally consent to sex once they reach 16 — either to face a potentially unsupportive family or the stigmatizing experience of going to court in order to get permission for an abortion.
Baker said he supported several sections of the bill, including reforms to the judicial bypass system and eliminating the 24-hour waiting period for an abortion, but he bristled at reducing the age of consent by two years and sought more restrictive language around abortions after 24 weeks.
“I cannot support the sections of this proposal that expand the availability of late-term abortions and permit minors age 16 and 17 to get an abortion without the consent of a parent or guardian,” he wrote.
His amendment would have scrapped lowering the age limit and would have changed the qualifying condition for an abortion after 24 weeks to when it is “necessary, in the best medical judgment of the physician, to preserve the patient’s physical or mental health,” rather than to “preserve the patient’s physical or mental health” as lawmakers proposed.
Both branches rejected those suggested alterations, 107-50 in the House and 32-8 in the Senate. Baker in response vetoed the entire bill on Christmas Eve.
After voting to approve the language as an amendment to the fiscal 2021 budget, to reject Baker’s amendment and to re-enact the original bill, representatives had little left to say about the proposal: with no introduction or debate, they voted 107-46 on Monday — surpassing the needed two-thirds majority to override.
Only one Republican, Rep. James Kelcourse of Amesbury, supported the proposal.
Sixteen Democrats cast votes against the override: Reps. Paul Donato, Brian Ashe, Linda Dean Campbell, Michael Finn, Colleen Garry, Russell Holmes, Christopher Markey, Joseph McGonagle, Paul McMurtry, Angelo Puppolo, David Robertson, John Rogers, Paul Schmid, Alan Silvia, RoseLee Vincent and Bud Williams.
Democrat Rep. Marcos Devers voted present, while Reps. Carole Fiola, David Nangle, Thomas Petrolati and Angelo Scaccia did not vote.
Baker’s veto drew criticism from Democrats and reproductive rights activists.
“Charlie Baker’s cowardice doesn’t take a break for the holidays. Hoping that we would all be too busy to notice, Charlie Baker once again caved in to the extreme right-wing of his Republican Party by vetoing critical abortion access provisions that would put our laws in line with neighboring states like Maine, New York and Connecticut,” Massachusetts Democratic Party Chair Gus Bickford said in response. “Charlie Baker is choosing to stand with right-wing extremists, instead of doctors, women, and the vast majority of voters in Massachusetts.”
Within Baker’s own party, the timing of the veto was also noted.
“Gov. Baker correctly recognized that this legislation simply goes too far, and he should be applauded for standing up and saying ‘no’ to the abortion lobby,” said Massachusetts Republican Party Chair Jim Lyons, with whom Baker has clashed in the past. “Gov. Baker’s decision, made the day before millions celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, should send a message to the lawmakers that this legislation has no place in a humane society.”
Massachusetts Citizens for Life said it mobilized thousands of people since Thanksgiving to pressure Baker.
“Kill the bill, not the baby!” said Fernando Limbo, a member of the group based in Revere. “Even our pro-choice governor can see the harm in this bill, and thank God for this Christmas Eve gift protecting life.”