Abortion-access advocates hope the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court and potential threat to abortion rights at the national level will propel Massachusetts lawmakers to expand access in the commonwealth, granting women the right to end some pregnancies after 24 weeks and allowing minors to seek abortions without parental consent or court proceedings.
In the wake of the death of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, considered a reliable pro-choice voice on the Supreme Court, legislative sponsors and advocates met virtually Monday morning to discuss how to push the issue onto the Legislature's fall agenda.
"I think her death may make people look much more seriously, with much more intensity, about the current situation with abortion care in Massachusetts. And I think that will go a long way to encouraging people to think about this bill," lead Senate sponsor and Senate President Emerita Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester) told GBH News.
An "act to remove obstacles and expand abortion access," or ROE Act as it's known, would update and codify a right to abortion in state law, allow abortions after 24 weeks in cases of fatal anomalies in the fetus or to protect the physical or mental health of the mother, and would allow minors to have the procedure without the consent of a parent or judge.
Naral Pro Choice Massachusetts Executive Director Rebecca Hart Holder told GBH News the vacancy on the nation's highest court, if filled by a conservative nominee from President Trump, means lawmakers need to act now to protect and expand abortion in Massachusetts.
Trump favors the repeal of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that allows women to choose to have an abortion without undue government interference.
"We're really faced with grave uncertainty about the future of the high court. And we, along with our coalition partners, are calling on the legislature to move the ROE Act now," Hart Holder said.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston took issue with pro-choice characterizations of the ROE Act, saying in a written statement that the pending legislation would create a significant expansion of current Massachusetts state law, and would "allow abortions during the nine months of pregnancy for virtually any reason."
Advocates are plotting the best course of action. They see a real possibility that the Legislature will move the ROE Act, which is currently in the Judiciary Committee, to the floor for a vote this year.
If the history of abortion bills or similar social issue legislation is any guide, moderate Democrats in the House will be less eager than progressives to vote on abortion rights so close to an election. Few incumbent Democrats are facing challengers this cycle, potentially freeing up some moderates who might otherwise try to stifle any abortion vote.
Lead House sponsor Rep. Patricia Haddad (D-Somerset) said it's now up to individual representatives and senators to express themselves and make it known to Democratic leaders and Judiciary co-chairs Rep. Claire Cronin (D-Easton) and Sen. Cynthia Creem (D-Newton) that they want the bill to pass. The bill has over 56 percent of House members signed-on as co-sponsors, with 55 percent of the Senate in support.
One of the biggest barriers to the bill's passage could be the Legislature's already jammed agenda. Judiciary Committee members and staff have been occupied with ongoing negotiations over police reform, and Haddad pointed out that Beacon Hill's limited capacity to take on major legislation this late in the session could hamper the new urgency, even if enough members ask for a vote.
"Capacity is probably the least interesting thing that people want to hear about, but it drives every conversation we're having," Haddad said.