Both sides of the abortion debate argued their cases during hours of State House testimony Monday on a bill that would expand abortion access after 24 weeks of pregnancy. But the politics of the bill, and what an eventual law may look like, aren't as cut and dry.

If passed, the ROE Act would codify a collection of current medical practices related to abortion in case the 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling is overturned by the Supreme Court and do away with the state requirement that a minor's parents or a judge consent to an abortion.

The bill would also expand access to abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy by allowing the procedure when a fetus has been diagnosed with a birth defect or anomaly that will prove lethal outside the womb.

Hundreds of anti-abortion activists and opponents of the ROE Act rallied outside the State House Monday morning and likened abortions later in pregnancies to "infanticide," regardless of the stipulation that a fetus must already suffer from a lethal condition.

In the middle of the debate are a number of moderate to conservative Democrats holding up approval of the bill — some staunch opponents of abortion, and others who are still mulling over the proposed changes to the law.

"As a woman, a Democrat, an attorney ... I can tell you objectively that this legislation is extreme," said Colleen Gary, a Democrat from Dracut who opposes abortion and is a member of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.

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A supporter and an opponent of the ROE act argue on the street outside of the Massachusetts State House.
Chaiel Schaffel WGBH News

Gary isn't alone in thinking the bill goes too far, and it will be up to the committee to work out a version of the bill that can appease fence-sitting Democrats and satisfy House Speaker Robert DeLeo's requirement of widespread support before allowing a vote.

It would not be unprecedented on Beacon Hill for progressives to give up on the more controversial provisions of a bill, at least temporarily, in order to assure its smooth passage.

After telling reporters in April that he doesn't "support late-term abortions. I support current law here in Massachusetts," Gov. Charlie Baker signaled Monday that he may be more of a fence-sitter than his previous stance against abortion after 24 weeks had implied.

Baker said Monday he agreed with DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka that the hearing and committee process should play out, and reemphasized his support for the state's current level of abortion access.

Instead of outright rejecting the premise that more abortions after 24 weeks should be allowed, Baker said he has "some concerns" about the legislative language of the ROE Act.

"Language here matters a lot, which is why this conversation is important with respect to changing the terms and conditions associated with late term abortions in Massachusetts," Baker said.

Echoing several lawmakers, Baker also said Monday that he "has concerns about eliminating the parental notification requirement that currently exists in state law." Massachusetts law currently requires an unmarried minor to receive consent from her parents or a judge in order to obtain an abortion.

"I stand here knowing that I serve a God that answers prayer. And I serve a God that understands that every life is precious in the womb of a woman," Pastor Estaban Corasco from House of Destiny church in Southbridge told the crowd on Monday.

Speaking for the pro-life movement in Massachusetts, Myrna Flynn from Northampton said that voters won't support the ROE Act once they understand the specifics of what it would allow.

"We're minorities in this state. But once people are informed, that minority will slide to a majority and we will save lives," Flynn said.

Supporters like House Speaker Pro Tem Patricia Haddad of Somerset disagree, and think most voters would get behind the idea that pregnancies with fatal birth defects should be allowed to end.

"We are trying to create a compassionate situation on the late end for a very small number of families who receive a diagnosis that is absolutely impossible to wrap your head around," Haddad said at a press conference alongside groups supporting the bill.

Supporters say the kinds of fatal fetal anomalies that could lead to an abortion after 24 weeks under the bill are rare, with only a few dozen cases reported to abortion access groups annually.

"We don't have the exact number, but it is a very, very small amount. What we've heard from medical professionals is under 50, but there isn't clinical research data," said NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts Executive Director Rebecca Hart Holder.

Sen. Hariette Chandler said the ROE Act would solidify access to legal abortions in Massachusetts if Roe vs. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court.

"We must enshrine Roe into statute. A Court's guarantee is not a guarantee in these times," Chandler said.