There's a new push for Beacon Hill lawmakers to vote on a bill, the ROE Act, that would expand abortion access for minors and do away with the state's total ban on abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy. The fresh urgency comes following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as questions loom about the future of the court and Roe v. Wade. Reporter Mike Deehan discussed the ROE Act with GBH All Things Considered host Arun Rath. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: This had been a stalled bill, but Ginsburg's death has put this right at the top of the minds of many of those at the State House. Tell us what the thinking is.
Mike Deehan: This happens a lot on Beacon Hill. You'll see legislation that is stuck in committee that takes session after session to get passed, doesn't make too much progress, then all of a sudden something will happen on the national stage that will bring attention to an issue and really draw people up. A good example of what's going on right now is the police reform and police certification bill. Talks had been stalled for years about most of these issues until civil unrest and the protests after the George Floyd incident brought that to the forefront. That's happened on abortion and different kinds of social issues as well.
We saw during the Kavanaugh hearings there was another kind of bill about outdated laws that Beacon Hill pushed through, kind of in response to what's going on in Congress, what's going on nationally. So there's a rich history of kind of reactionary policymaking from Beacon Hill, and that's why supporters are now saying that now is the time to pass this abortion expansion law, because it will be in honor of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and it really shows what she meant and what she really strived for through her whole career.
Rath: So there is enthusiasm now, but it still is not uncontroversial. Tell us about what the ROE Act would do.
Deehan: It has a few major sections, one about abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy. Those are currently banned, but under this law, it would allow abortions for cases of fatal fetal anomalies, or birth defects that will result in the death of the fetus. Abortions would also be allowed after 24 weeks to protect the mental or physical health of the mother. That's a pretty broad definition, and allowing abortions after 24 weeks in order to protect the mental health of a patient is really causing some people to pause and say maybe this is going too far, maybe this is opening up a wider avenue to abortion than they might want.
The other big part of the bill is that it would end required parental consent for minors seeking an abortion. Right now, you either need parental consent or you can go through a judge to get that signed over before the procedure can be done on someone under 18. That's also causing a bit of a stir in the Massachusetts House and Senate, with legislators asking, do we really want to remove this set of parental limitations from the law?
Rath: So let's flash forward. There are six conservative justices, Roe v. Wade is overturned. What would happen in Massachusetts?
Deehan: Really not too much would directly happen if Roe v. Wade were overturned at the federal level. That's because the state constitution, at least according to our Supreme Judicial Court. The state's top court says that the Massachusetts constitution has a right to privacy in it, and the right to abortion is also included in that right to privacy. So services here in Massachusetts would still be available. The Planned Parenthood locations in Massachusetts would not close down if Roe v. Wade were overturned.
Other states have different situations if that were the case. But there is another aspect to the ROE Act that it would apply to, and that's to codify into state law that there is, in fact, a right to abortion. Make it not just an SJC opinion, but codify it into state law to enshrine it more solidly. That's something that advocates have been looking to do for a long time, to clean up that ambiguity.
Rath: So how much support is there for the ROE Act?
Deehan: Well, here's the thing: As with many bills on Beacon Hill, there is majority support already. Fifty-six percent of House members are already co-sponsors of this bill. Fifty-five percent of state senators are already signed onto this bill. That is not a veto-proof majority, not a supermajority, but it is a majority of both chambers that already say that this should pass.
Why isn't that just an easy vote? It has a lot to do with politics inside the State House and really within these districts as we approach an election year. Moderates just don't necessarily want to vote on abortion in an election year. If someone is from a purple district, they could see problems or a challenge from the right if they vote for abortion expansion, and they could see challenges or problems from the left in the primary if they vote against it. So for a lot of incumbent lawmakers up here, at least, it's better to just avoid voting as much as possible, especially on something as touchy as abortion.