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One in four American women will have an abortion by the time they are 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Despite this, the legality of abortion has been an incendiary topic in the political landscape for over a century. Now, Massachusetts legislators are taking steps to enshrine abortion rights in state law.
A legislative hearing on the ROE Act drew hundreds to the Massachusetts State House to voice their opinions on abortion last Monday. The bill, otherwise know as “An Act to Remove Obstacles and Expand Abortion Access,” comes as a response to a wave of anti-abortion bans and restrictions passed into law in several states earlier this year. The ROE Act aims to do the opposite. If passed, it would expand access to abortion in Massachusetts by requiring all health insurance policies to cover the procedure.
“Abortion is healthcare and healthcare is a human right,” said Carol Rose, Executive Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, as she testified in support of the ROE Act.
Rose was joined in her support for the bill by Dr. Luu Ireland, a licensed OB/GYN who works with the UMass Memorial Medical Group.
“Current legislative restrictions do nothing to increase safety and only create unnecessary costs,” said Dr. Ireland in her testimony.
Dr. Ireland argued that the current legislative restrictions delay care and drive up the cost of the procedure. One of the more controversial aspects of the ROE Act is a measure that tries to alleviate some of those costs by removing the restriction on abortions being performed after 24 weeks in the case of a “fatal fetal anomaly.” Often undetectable until late in the pregnancy, these cases involve a situation in which a licensed medical practitioner determines that a fetus would not be able to survive outside of the uterus. Up until this year, parents who received this devastating news had to travel to Colorado or New Mexico to receive a legal abortion. In January, New York became another option for them when its legislature passed the Reproductive Health Act, which also legalized late term abortion in the absence of fetal viability. However Amy Smith, a supporter of the ROE Act, said even that hurdle can be an insurmountable obstacle for most low-income and poor families.
“This is also an issue of economics and economic justice,” said Smith.
Governor Charlie Baker has said he does not support this measure in the bill. Massachusetts Republican Party Chairman Jim Lyons called it “radical infanticide,” but Senate President Harriet Chandler, one of the bill’s sponsors, said politicians have no business dictating abortion terms for Massachusetts women.
“This is a decision to be made by a doctor and a patient and we do not need to be involved in it,” said Chandler.
Another controversial element of the ROE Act eliminates the parental consent requirement for minors seeking the procedure. This requirement was passed into state law in 1974, the year after the Supreme Court handed down their decision in Roe v. Wade. On Monday, proponents of the ROE Act criticized the requirement as an antiquated backlash to the Court’s decision. Dr. Ireland argued the restriction was particularly harmful to women who feared for their safety if they turned to their parents.
“The requirement blocks the most vulnerable young women from the care they need,” said Dr. Ireland.
Carrie Baker, the president of the Abortion Fund of Western Massachusetts, also testified against the parental consent requirement.
In an interview the day after the hearing, she said, “Basically, my angle was the cost angle and how unnecessary barriers to access delays abortion, which makes it riskier and more costly. And for particularly marginalized people that makes it more stressful on them if they know that the price is going up and they have to jump through all these hoops.”
According to Carrie Baker, a parental consent requirement can increase the cost of an abortion by up to $700.
Salisbury resident Heather Emerson wore a pink shirt with the words “I support the ROE Act” on it. She said the passage of the bill would make her proud to live in Massachusetts.
“Women have a right to make a decision like that that affects them the rest of their life physically and mentally. It’s their choice. Their body,” said Emerson.
However, not everyone in attendance was in support of the bill. Attendees described a “sea of red” in reference to opponents of the bill who showed up in red shirts. Wakefield resident Marcy Mccauley was not wearing a red shirt but said the removal of parental consent requirement goes too far.
“I think this bill is very extreme, and it takes away a lot of the protection for vulnerable young women who are not mature enough to make the decisions without their parents,” Mccauley said.
In response, proponents of the bill pointed out that nearly three in four minors do engage their parents or guardians when they consider an abortion. Right now, minors who want to receive abortions without the consent of a parent or guardian must appear in court to be granted a judicial bypass. Pro-choice advocate Heather Emerson said changing this system would actually be safer for minors who are seeking abortion due to a rape- or incest-related pregnancy because doctors, unlike judges, are required to report abuse.
“I like that it puts them in front of a mandated reporter in case home is the source of the problem,” Emerson said.
Another pro choice advocate in attendance was Jennifer Rabold. Rabold has been a supporter of abortion rights for decades and was working at a Brookline abortion clinic in 1994 when a man walked in and started shooting, killing the receptionist on duty.
“I was on vacation that day, but I used to cover her lunch breaks, so it could have been me,” Rabold said.
Rabold said the shooting made her a “never turn back supporter of reproductive rights.” She said that given today’s political climate she felt it was particularly important to be present for the hearing on Monday.
“When reproductive rights are so close to being overturned, it is time to make some noise,” she said.